ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart has a plan for seemingly every scenario, and against Notre Dame, experience factored in.
Smart, perhaps sensing the Bulldogs game with the Irish would be closer than anticipated, played it close to the vest in most respects, including personnel decisions.
The one thing Georgia didn’t want to do was beat itself, though it very nearly did with a special teams miscue before pulling out the 23-17 win.
The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs also faced adversity in the form or injuries, missing both starting cornerbacks just two plays into the action when Eric Stokes sprained his knee.
Many expected to see freshman Tyrique Stevenson take the field. Stevenson was one of the more anticipated early enrollees, a physical 6-foot-1, 200-pound cornerback seeming built for big receivers like Notre Dame.
But Smart went for experience over athleticism, trotting out senior Tyrique McGhee at cornerback. The plan was to go with the 5-10, 187-pound McGhee all week should another cornerback go down with an injury.
Cornerback Tyson Campbell was already out, still sidelined by a foot injury suffered Sept. 14 against Arkansas State.
Junior college transfer DJ Daniel started in place of Campbell and held his own against the bigger, more physical Irish receivers.
“McGhee practiced (at corner) all week, did a really good job,” Smart said, asked why he went with the senior over Stevenson, who both he and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning praised heavily throughout spring and fall camp.
“McGhee’s played corner in several games …. he understands our overall system probably a little bit better right now.”
Smart said with Campbell already sidelined, he felt experience would be key once Stokes went out.
“We had one corner out there who had never really started already on one side,” Smart said, “and we didn’t really want to have two of them out there at a time.”
McGhee has played in 44 games throughout his career, most recently used as the “Star” defensive back last season, starting seven games.
Georgia has elected to go with bigger, more physical players at the star this season. Redshirt freshman Divaad Wilson and junior Mark Webb moved ahead of McGhee on the depth chart.
Smart said he knew McGhee could handle the reps at cornerback under the bright lights.
“Tyrique McGhee, he’s from Peach County, they make you hard and soiled, and you hit every day of practice, one of the toughest, most physical schools in the country,” Smart said. “This kid has been through so much, he started last year, he’s had injuries, and he’s very bought into the team, he’ll do whatever you ask.
“This week we told him we were down corners, (and) ‘if someone gets hurt, you may have to play, (so) instead of repping at star and safety, we’ll put you at corner,’ and he took reps at corner.”
Notre Dame scored a touchdown thrown on McGhee, but Smart liked the way he competed.
“He hasn’t always played exactly perfect, but he’s a winner, he’s a fighter, and he’s a senior, and that’s why you have depth in your program,” Smart said. “Because if you don’t have that depth, then you may have a bigger drop-off at the position and it could be the difference in the game.”
Stevenson, who Lanning described as a “ballplayer” at the start of fall drills, remains in competition at the cornerback.
Smart made it clear he hasn’t forgotten Stevenson.
“Tyrique Stevenson is extremely talented, and there’s a really big, physical match-up guy,” Smart said. “As he develops and works and learns the defense, he’s going to be a really good player. He’s close. He’s one of those guys who’s competing for the job.
“(McGhee) we felt like would understand the coverages and know it.”
Smart went with more experienced players over young talent at other positions as well, likely wanting to use the bye week to provide more seasoning for freshmen.
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