ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart isn’t sure if this is the most underclassmen he’s had playing for him on a team or not, but he’s glad to see the Bulldogs’ youth stepping up.
Georgia has had its share of bumps and bruises this season just like any other SEC team, but unlike many others, the Bulldogs were able to find capable replacements at pivotal times thanks to Smart’s past two recruiting classes.
The future of Georgia football is emerging before the eyes of the Bulldogs’ fans with young players working their way up the depth chart and contributing more and more each week.
“We’ve got a lot of them in our two-deep, and it’s mainly because I think eight or nine of them came early,” said Smart, whose roster ranks as the youngest in the SEC, 68 percent of his players freshmen or sophomores. “So that helped them get acclimated. That certainly had an effect with Cade (Mays) and maybe Trey (Hill) and those guys that came early.”
Indeed, Mays has been invaluable, filling in for left tackle Andrew Thomas at South Carolina and against Middle Tennessee State, and then moving into the right guard position when Ben Cleveland suffered a broken left fibula the fourth game of the season.
At Kentucky, freshman Trey Hill stepped up in the first quarter when senior center Lamont Guillard went down with a hyperextended left knee.
At one point, Georgia had three freshmen offensive linemen and two sophomores on the field — on a day the Bulldogs rushed for 331 yards against the No. 1 scoring defense in the nation.
“I just know these guys are working hard, and you want to bring good players in your program, but it’s not just getting them here, it’s getting them bought into the principles and values and doing what the seniors want and then buying in and also learning and dealing with the frustration of being away from home,” Smart said. “This group is starting to overcome a lot of that and get better as they get more and more experience.”
The No. 6 Bulldogs (8-1, 6-1) play host to Auburn (6-3, 3-3) at 7 p.m. on Saturday at Sanford Stadium (TV: ESPN, RADIO: WSB 750 AM, 95.5 FM).
Smart said Monday he’s optimistic Gaillard and Cleveland will return to the starting lineup, but Georgia’s youth continues to contribute in several other areas.
Sophomore receiver Jeremiah Holloman has become Jake Fromm’s most consistent target the past two games, redshirt freshman right tackle Isaiah Wilson and true freshman cornerback Tyson Campbell have started each game for the Bulldogs. Freshman defensive tackle Jordan Davis has started the last two games as well.
At Kentucky, freshman linebackers Brenton Cox and Channing Tindall recorded their first career sacks, freshman linebacker Adam Anderson flashed with a nice tackle and freshman Otis Reese was in on the second series as a single safety.
Redshirt freshman linebacker Robert Beal is certainly emerging, with four tackles against LSU and three more against the Wildcats after missing the Florida game on account of a funeral.
Smart has taken note.
“Don’t think of it as last year’s signing class, look at it as a two-year span of guys that haven’t had significant roles,” Smart said. “I think those guys are growing up, getting better, and I said it after the game last week, some guys got in the game that hadn’t been getting in the game, because we’ve had to use them.
“They have some attributes that we need, and I’m pleased with those guys’ growth. I just hope the maturity allows them to handle, whether it’s a little success, in the case of Channing (Tindall) or Adam (Anderson) or Brenton (Cox), or a little frustration in the case of somebody that’s not playing as much as they want to. They just have to keep getting better.”
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