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Nolan Smith is looking to make a leap as a second-year defender.

Kirby Smart on second-year defensive players: ‘They’ll be a lot better off opportunity alone’

While Georgia didn’t have any freshman defenders make a George Pickens-type impact in 2019, there were plenty of positive signs from a deeper pool of players.

Travon Walker and Tyrique Stevenson both had sacks against Auburn. Nolan Smith heavily pressured Notre Dame’s Ian Book on its final offensive play of the game. Lewis Cine saw significant snaps at the end of the season, while Nakobe Dean emerged a key player in Georgia’s third-down defense. Those five names, at all levels of the Georgia defense, certainly flashed during their first season on campus.

And now they’ll be asked to make greater and more consistent contributions for the 2020 season. And their head coach, one of the best defensive minds in the country, thinks they’ll be able to do so.

“I think they’ll be a lot better off opportunity alone,” Kirby Smart said on a podcast with ESPN’s David Pollack and Kevin Negandhi. “If you look at the guys that were freshmen, they got a little taste, those are going to be the guys that step up the most.”

For some, the path to more playing time is easier to see. Cine replaced an injured J.R. Reed in the Sugar Bowl win over Baylor. Cine picked up six tackles in the win and is the favorite to replace Reed at safety. Dean meanwhile figures to have the best chance to fill Tae Crowder’s void at inside linebacker.

Related: Kirby Smart shares nagging concern about Georgia defense overwhelmed by LSU

As for Smith, Walker and Stevenson, there isn’t a clear path to starting. But there wasn’t a season ago either and they still found a way on to the field. Smith and Walker will certainly play a key role on pass-rushing downs while also subbing on early downs as well as they continue to improve in run defense.

Stevenson is one of the more versatile defensive backs Georgia has on its roster. He mostly made an impact at the Star position, a hybrid of sorts between a cornerback and safety. He might not breakthrough at either one of those spots, but he has the athletic ability to do so. And there’s the possibility he could overtake Mark Webb at the Star position on a full-time basis as well.

Of course, those five, along with every member of the Georgia roster was hurt from the lack of spring practice. But Smart is still comfortable saying that while Georgia’s young defenders still have some obvious growing to do, there’s the opportunity for them to make significant strides.

“There’s still going to be growth and maturation process,,” Smart said. “The biggest leap you make is from year one to year two, and I’m expecting those guys, the Nakobe Deans, the Travon Walkers, the Tyrique Stevensons, Lewis Cines, there’s some talented young freshman on that defense that I think are going to step up and be good players.”

Related: 6 second-year Georgia football players primed for major impacts in 2020

Georgia has to replace just three starters from the nation’s best scoring and rushing defense from a season ago. While the group might not be as deep, especially along the defensive line, as it was in 2019, Dean, Cine and others making noticeable improvement might raise the ceiling Georgia’s defense.

Crowder was the only defender from last year’s team to be drafted and he was taken with the final pick of the draft. If the likes Smith, Walker and Stevenson make the aforementioned leap Smart referenced, it won’t be long before we’re talking about them as NFL prospects. And perhaps Georgia’s defense as being the best in the country.

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