NEW ORLEANS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart stands behind Deandre Baker’s decision not to play in the Sugar Bowl next Tuesday.
“That was a decision he came to … last week, somewhere around mid-week, but he was very honest about it, he was very concerned about it,” Smart said Thursday afternoon after the team arrived at Louis Armstrong International Airport.
Baker practiced with the team through Dec. 20 before returning home to South Florida, missing the Bulldogs’ practices last Friday and Saturday.
Georgia officials were asked about Baker’s whereabouts last week after he wasn’t at Friday’s practice, but the school did not acknowledge the questions until Smart spoke at the team’s arrival on Thursday.
“We at the university of Georgia support him and his decision, it’s a tough decision when you look at it, and he was forced to make it,” he said. “He’s here with us, he’s part of our family,”
Baker, a senior cornerback who is projected to be selected in the mid-to-late first round of the NFL Draft, also declined an invitation to compete at the Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala., next month.
Baker, the Thorpe Award winner and a first-team All-American, had originally said on Dec. 5 at the College Football Awards in Atlanta that he planned to play in the Sugar Bowl.
“He probably spoke prematurely when he was at the Thorpe Award, I think it was on his mind, but he met with his family about it,” Smart said.
Baker traveled with the team for the Sugar Bowl and will play a supportive role, Smart said.
The No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (11-2) play No. 15 Texas (9-4) at 8:45 p.m. on Jan. 1 at the Mercedes-Benz Superdome.
“It was really important to him to stay with the team, we support him as a coaching staff to stay around the team, be around the team,” Smart said. “He wanted to come on this trip and help those other players, the young corners.”
Baker’s absence will thrust true freshman cornerback Tyson Campbell back into the starting lineup opposite redshirt freshman cornerback Eric Stokes.
Campbell started the first 10 games before being replaced by Stokes in the starting lineup.
Smart said that Baker had taken note of several other projected first-round NFL Draft picks not taking part in their teams’ bowl games.
“You look around the country, and there are a lot of guys making that decision (to skip their respective team’s bowl game),” Smart said, “and it really weighed heavy on that kid, and he came to us and told us, and I told him I would support him.”
Smart pointed out that Baker helped the Bulldogs reach two SEC title games, coming back for his senior season when he had the option to turn pro following last season.
“He came back after having a good (draft) grade as a junior and decided to play,” Smart said, “and he helped get us to this point.”