ATHENS — As Georgia likes to say, it was a good day to be a Bulldog.
It was quite a scene in the House of Payne on Wednesday. That’s the new affectionate nickname of Georgia’s indoor practice facility, officially named the William Porter Payne and Porter Otis Payne Indoor Athletic Facility earlier this year thanks to a recent $10 million donation.
On Wednesday, however, it might well have been called NFL Central. On one side of the 102,000-square foot facility were dozens of NFL team representatives — all 32 teams were present, many sending their head coach. On the other side were dozens of media types meticulously covering the proceedings, the SEC and NFL networks broadcasting live. And in the middle were 21 Georgia football players displaying their wares in hopes of fulfilling their lifelong dreams of becoming NFL players.
A bunch of them will. Most projections have at least eight Bulldogs getting selected in the 2018 draft, which would tie for the most in program history (2008). But it could go north of that. Several players who did not get one of the team’s 10 invitations to the NFL combine last month performed — and performed well — on Wednesday and could hear their names called in April. And even if they don’t, there is bound to be at least a few who make teams as undrafted free agents. The Bulldogs have made that somewhat of a specialty (see David Andrews of the Patriots).
All that’s good news for Georgia. There are many who have taken issue with the Bulldogs for coming up short in their pursuit of national titles for the last couple of decades. But there can be no complaint about the consistency with which this school and this program turn out professional football players. And, lest we forget, that is the core of the college mission — to prepare young people for professional careers, be it in football, chemistry or business administration.
There was a downside to Wednesday’s proceedings: the reality of what it means for the current Georgia team. There is, in fact, a ton of talent heading out from beneath those famed arches.
That notion was most starkly on display when New England Patriots coach Bill Belichick and new Detroit Lions coach Matt Patricia — Belichick’s defensive coordinator the previous five seasons — oversaw the linebacker workouts. The four prospects who they were putting through the paces were Davin Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, Reggie Carter and Roquan Smith. That’s Georgia’s entire starting linebacker corps through the College Football Playoff run (and for most of the 2017 season).
That’s a lot for any one team to replace in one season. Then again, it’s what teams shoot for as a program.
“I’m kind of used to it,” said Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who was at Alabama nine years before joining the Bulldogs. “To be honest with you, when you sit back and look at all the good players you’ve been able to coach over your career, they all have to be replaced by somebody. Today is really about [the NFL hopefuls]. It’s an honor to say we got to coach them but it’s even better to get to watch them do what they love to do and they get to do it in front of a wonderful audience. I mean, who gets to do linebacker drills with Bill Belichick and Matt Patricia?”
The moment wasn’t lost on the participants.
“It was great getting advice and technique tips from those type of guys who have been in the business for a long time,” said Smith, who projects as an early first-round pick and will attend the NFL draft ceremonies in Arlington, Texas, next month. “That was definitely big. I’m a student of the game, college and NFL, but obviously everybody knows who Bill Belichick is.”
Smith, the Butkus Award winner, made quite a statement by just being willing to go through the workouts. He projects as a top-15 draft selection and already went through this process at the NFL combine in Indianapolis last month. Meanwhile, he had lunch with the Chicago Bears’ brass Tuesday and is about to be jetted around to meetings San Francisco, Buffalo, Indianapolis and New York.
Nonetheless, Smith said he wanted to be there Wednesday at UGA’s Pro Day. It has gotten to be a tradition, a thing, as evidenced by the presence of Jordan Jenkins and a half-dozen other Bulldogs alums currently drawing league paychecks.
“It’s very exciting,” Smith said. “You only get to go through this process one time in life. So I’m just soaking it all up and taking advantage of everything.”
And while Smith really had nothing left to prove, others, such as Javon Wims, felt like they did.
The Bulldogs’ leading receiver was invited to the NFL combine and did every possible exercise there. But he did everything in Athens, as well, and it appears to have paid off. He caught every pass thrown his way during position drills, then bettered his marks in the broad jump and 40-yard dash, improving to 4.47 seconds from 4.53 in the latter.
“That’s why we come to Georgia,” Wims said of the massive scout turnout on their home turf. “Guys want to come here to have this opportunity, to be embraced by all these scouts. I wanted to come in and show them that I had the whole [wide receiver] skill set and I think I did that.”
That’s why Smart was beaming Wednesday. Even though he knows he’s losing a ton of talent from his roster, he knows their dreams are being realized while also fueling the dreams of future Bulldogs.
“I think it’s honorable what they’ve done,” he said of the 21 soon-to-be-former Bulldogs. “They’ve been a great group and they’ve been really special to Georgia.