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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart speaks at SEC Media Days in the College Football Hall of Fame on Wednesday, July 20, 2022, in Atlanta. “Curtis Compton / Curtis”

Kirby Smart blunt in assessing Georgia football practices: ‘It’s about surviving fall camp’

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Health will be ongoing during physical Georgia football fall camp

The reason Darnell Washington didn’t have the season many thought he would last year had almost nothing to do with Washington’s abilities.

The 5-star tight end began the year with much hype after an encouraging finish to the 2020 season. With a full year in Georgia’s strength and conditioning program, Washington entered last August in better shape than when he arrived as a freshman. He seemed like the kind of player who would burst onto the scene as a sophomore and greatly impact Georgia’s passing offense.

But Washington suffered a foot injury during fall camp. The injury required surgery and Washington didn’t make his debut until October. By that point, Brock Bowers had full emerged at that point as Georgia’s top receiving tight end, moving Washington into a supporting role. He finished the year with only 10 catches in 11 games and just a single touchdown.

Washington is far from the first player to have their season sidelined by a fall camp injury. Kearis Jackson similarly never got going after missing a chunk of time last August to recover from offseason knee surgery.

The month of August is vital for team development. And while Georgia enters fall practice mostly healthy, coach Kirby Smart knows the Bulldogs would be incredibly lucky to end its preseason that way.

“We expect to be at full health,” Smart said at SEC media days. “But as you guys know it’s about surviving fall camp. It’s not about entering camp. We enter camp at 99 percent. It’s coming out of camp at 95 percent that’s going to be important.”

Among the injuries to monitor at the start of camp would be Tate Ratledge and Tykee Smith. Ratledge is still recovering from surgery on his foot after an injury he suffered on the opening drive of the Clemson game last year.

Ratledge last year experienced the opposite of Washington in fall camp. The redshirt sophomore offensive lineman was able to stay healthy for all of those August practices. He performed so well during the month that he emerged as the team’s starting right guard against Clemson. Factor in that Warren Ericson missed time last August and you see the theoretical benefit of staying healthy at contested positions.

As for Smith, he is still working his way back from an ACL injury. His outlook is less rosy than that of Ratledge, who seems to be farther along in his recovery.

“You’re never going to be 100 percent. You go back to George, you go back to every ACL we’ve had. He is not 100 percent but you still see the athleticism,” Smart said of the West Virginia transfer. “he’s not been cleared to play football just yet. Tackle, do all those things. I don’t know if he’ll be completely cleared when we get back to fall camp but he should be cleared shortly there after it. Hopefully we can find a role for him to help us.”

Related: Kirby Smart updates injury status of Tate Ratledge, Tykee Smith, CJ Washington and other Bulldogs

With how physical Georgia will practice, there are bound to be injuries. Georgia players are often fond of saying that practice at Georgia is harder than games. That can’t be the case if practices themself aren’t highly physical.

You’re going to see players get banged up and bruised. Football is a violent game after all. You only hope it isn’t a serious injury that knocks them out for an extended period of time as it did for Washington last season.

Georgia saw Ericson, for example, return in time to play a crucial role in the season-opener after Ratledge got hurt. Ericson’s injury also gave Sedrick Van Pran an opportunity to lock down the starting center reps. Fall camp injuries, provided they happen early enough, do open doors for other players to step through. Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Bowers was very much capable of doing so last fall for the Bulldogs.

But not every player is going to be as ready as Bowers was when said opportunity arises. A glance at the Georgia roster shows that the safety and cornerback positions could really be tested in the event of an injury at those positions. Georgia could ill-afford to lose either Chris Smith or Kelee Ringo, as they are the most experienced defensive backs. Consider that of the other six scholarship cornerbacks, all of them are in either their first or second season in the program.

Injury luck plays a massive part in a team’s fortunes. Just look at Alabama last season, as the Crimson Tide lost its top two wide receivers in the latter stages of the season. Georgia dealt with its fair share of injuries as well but was able to be close to full strength by the time the championship game rolled around.

A lot of that stems from the grueling nature of summer workouts and fall practices. They’re supposed to be hard, that way you can dig deep later on in the season.

It’s part of the double-edged sword that this Georgia team is about to pick up. Survive fall camp with good health, and you will reap the rewards come November and December. But suffer too many injuries and you might not have a team capable of getting to that point.

Georgia begins practice on Thursday. The bumps and bruises should follow pretty quickly after that.

Kirby Smart on 2022 Georgia football team

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