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Freshman safety Malaki Starks, a former 5-star recruit, receives some coaching instruction from Georgia co-defensive coordinator Will Muschamp during G-Day. (Jeff Sentell/DawgNation)

Recent history backs up Kirby Smart’s tempered expectations for freshman defensive backs

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Kirby Smart on Georgia freshman defensive backs: ‘I don’t foresee one of those guys just coming in and dominating’

Kirby Smart knows a thing or two about defensive backs. Whether it be from his time as an All-SEC safety to his years of coaching the position, there are few coaches in the country better at coaching up cornerbacks and safeties than Smart.

Even as the head coach at Georgia, he still spends a little extra time in the defensive backfield. To begin Georgia practices, he is almost always starting with the defensive backs, giving out coaching tips and demanding maximum effort. Whether you’re a senior defensive back like Chris Smith or one of the many newcomers, Smart is going to let you know what he thinks.

So when Smart cautioned about expecting too much from Georgia’s freshman defensive backs, it’s probably worth heeding his advice.

“If you’re going to have a guy be an elite player as a freshman, it’s usually at a skilled position like receiver, running back, or defensive back,” Smart said. “I don’t foresee one of those guys just coming in and dominating.”

Georgia signed six freshman defensive backs in the past cycle. Daylen Everette, Jaheim Singletary and Julian Humprhey at cornerback, Marcus Washington Jr. at the star position and Malaki Starks and JaCorey Thomas at safety.

It’s the second-most defensive backs Smart has ever signed in one class, as Georgia signed eight in the 2017 recruiting cycle. The 2022 haul might have the most upside of any class, with all six being blue-chip recruits and Everette, Singletary and Starks holding distinctions as 5-star recruits.

There’s a reason why Georgia loaded up on defensive backs in the last cycle: depth. Georgia had just four scholarship cornerbacks during spring practice, with Everette counting as one as an early enrollee. There also isn’t much starting experience in the secondary, with only Kelee Ringo and Chris Smith having started double-digit games during their Georgia careers.

So one could understand why there’s excitement about this group. As Smart so often laid out last year with star tight end Brock Bowers, some of his success came because of opportunity. Injuries ahead of him on the depth chart granted him a lot more reps than he normally would’ve been afforded. The tight end took advantage of that. With Georgia being thin at both cornerback and safety, it doesn’t take a lot to see a scenario where one or two of those freshmen could be thrust into duty.

“We will need those guys to be core special teams players,” Smart said. “We will need those guys to be ready to play in the case of, you know, injuries, targetings or whatever may be there. But we’ve got to get them ready by how we prepare in this training camp. And I’m excited about all those guys.”

Looking back at the history of true freshman defensive backs though, it backs up what Smart says about the position. For every Derek Stingley Jr. that comes along and plays right away, there are just as many talented defensive backs who don’t see the field in their first season.

The Bulldogs signed 26 defensive backs from the high school ranks from 2016 through the 2021 recruiting cycles. Only four of them have started a game as a true freshman, with those four combining for 15 starts. Tyson Campbell is the only one to start the season-opener, but even he was benched late in the year in favor of Eric Stokes.

Most importantly, Campbell and Lewis Cine are the only two defensive backs to start the last game of their freshman year, and both of those players did so due to Deandre Baker opting out of the 2019 Sugar Bowl and an injury to JR Reed before the 2020 Sugar Bowl.

The point being, the numbers don’t look good for one of the many talented youngsters breaking through to start the season-opener against Oregon.

“You show me a freshman DB that played in the SEC, I’ll show you a guy that gave up plays,” Smart said. “All right? That’s the common denominator. Now, every now and then you have a guy that comes long who’s just -- I think of a couple of those guys that had to play as freshman, they played really big.”

This isn’t to say that Everette, Starks and the others will be on ice all season. Cine and Tyrique Stevenson both found key snaps as members of the 2019 signing class. They can play a role in the defense, especially in the event of injury.

At the cornerback spot opposite Ringo, it seems like Kamari Lassiter and Nyland Green have a leg-up on the youngsters, with the latter making up some ground on the former at the start of camp. As for the safety position opposite Smith, walk-on Dan Jackson looks to be the guy right now as Tykee Smith is still recovering from an ACL injury he suffered last October.

At safety, Starks and Thomas are pushing for roles and trying to learn the ins and outs of college football. It helps that both were able to go through spring practice and that both have the necessary athleticism to hang at the collegiate level.

“They’re picking up really well on the defense and things like that,” Smith said of the freshman safeties. “They’re coming along really well. They ask a lot of questions from me. Malaki and JaCorey, they have about five or six questions after each practice for me. I always take the time to answer those things for them because I want them to get better.”

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