ATHENS – Sony Michel remembers his first road trip as a Georgia football player. It was three years ago to South Carolina, where fans are usually so into the game that the press box shakes. But that’s not what stood out to the freshman Michel.
“Away-game activities. Go to a hotel, go to a different environment, and I think that’s where the young guys have got to adjust,” he said. “The ones that are going to play have got to stay focused. Just got to be professionals and know it’s a business trip.”
For Georgia’s heralded freshmen, and a few other newcomers, this will be quite the road debut: Notre Dame Stadium. It’s at the forefront for anyone analyzing the game: How will Georgia freshman Jake Fromm handle the pressure and the environment?
It’s not just Fromm. Right tackle and fellow freshman Andrew Thomas will make his second start. Safety Richard LeCounte, another freshman, is the first-team safety when Georgia is in its nickel defense. Tailback D’Andre Swift is an emerging option for the offense. Punter Cam Nizialek is a senior, but he spent the last three years in the Ivy League, so this will be his first big road environment.
But if you ask Georgia veterans, they don’t have any worries about the rookies. They think the new guys will be too busy talking to be rattled.
“Richard, he’s talkative, Jake’s talkative,” sophomore safety J.R. Reed said. “I think the whole Sic’ Em’ 17 class is talkative.”
LeCounte’s energy has gotten him in trouble a few times with coach Kirby Smart, who excoriated the freshman after a series against Appalachian State.
“That dude is flying around everywhere,” senior safety Dominick Sanders said of LeCounte. “He’s a guy you’ve got to tell to calm down because wherever that ball goes, he’s going to knock somebody out. And that’s what I like about that kid, his passion for the game is so much and his work ethic is unbelievable.”
That’s the thread that seems to connect the freshmen playing for Georgia. They’re talented, sure, but what sets them apart is the maturity and smarts that have given them the confidence that they can play.
For instance, when Smart was asked about Swift, he compared his demeanor and maturity to Thomas.
“Very businesslike,” Smart said of the two. “Both of them went to great academic institutions [for high school]. Both of them won state championships in high school. They are very serious about their performance — and I think that’s the overriding factor that allows them to play so early in their college careers — because they are very calm in the moment.”
And this moment is a very big one. So there’s a reason that so many freshmen – 17 by Georgia’s count – played against Appalachian State. The nature of that game, a blowout, allowed the bench to be emptied in the fourth quarter. This time, the playing time may be more scarce for some, but not at quarterback, right tackle, safety and a few other spots.
“Georgia has always been a school that is not afraid to play young guys, if you’re ready,” Georgia junior defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter said. “You should see a lot more younger guys getting into the game, because they’re stepping up, and they understand that a role needs to be filled, and their number’s going to get called at some point.”