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Georgia head coach Kirby Smart wanted to get Tate Ratledge more snaps this spring. Ratledge was one of Georgia’s top-rated freshmen, as he was the No. 38 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting cycle.
Given Ratledge’s talent and the need on the offensive line, the Bulldogs want to see what the redshirt freshman could do. That’s why Georgia made him the starting right guard in the spring game. It gave the Ratledge a chance to match up against a starting-caliber SEC defensive line.
More than that though, it gave Ratledge an opportunity to play. Something he did only once during the 2020 season.
“He’s growing up. He needed a lot of reps,” Smart said of Ratledge prior to G-Day. “He’s getting a lot of reps, continuing to work in there. We think he’s powerful, intelligent, still inexperienced.
“Experience is the greatest attribute you can get when it comes to the SEC. You can’t simulate what you get in there on third down and the speed of the game. He’s a guy that needs 1,000 reps and we’re trying to get him there as fast as we can.”
Related: Development of Tate Ratledge could be key piece in Georgia offensive line puzzle
The 2020 schedule that was made up of nine SEC opponents and a top-10 Cincinnatti team contributed to the lack of playing time for some of the younger Bulldogs. Georgia didn’t have the cupcake opponents on the schedule like it will once again in 2021 as it welcomes UAB and Charleston Southern to Athens.
Ratledge was far from the only member of Georgia’s 2020 signing class impacted by the COVID-19 season. In all, 13 members of Georgia’s 2020 signing class ended up redshirting their first year at Georgia. That’s the most of any class since Smart took over prior to the 2016 season.
The number of scholarship redshirt freshmen has risen every year since Smart’s first. The 2016 signing class had just three players redshirt. That number jumped to seven with the 2017 class, eight in 2018 and then 11 for the 2019 class.
The COVID-19 pandemic undoubtedly played a part in the slower developments of players like Ratledge and Sedrick Van Pran. In addition to fewer games, they also dealt with truncated offseason workout programs as well as limited interaction with teammates. They were also asked to learn new schemes and deal with a significant increase in the level o physicality.
There was even a point where it felt like these players wouldn’t have a freshman season at all.
But the growing number of redshirt freshmen for the Georgia program can’t all be put on the pandemic. As Georgia continues to stack recruiting classes — Smart has now signed five consecutive top-four recruiting classes — it’s going to prevent players from getting on the field sooner.
Georgia didn’t need to throw Broderick Jones out at either tackle spot as a freshman when the Bulldogs had players such as Jamaree Salyer or Warren McClendon ready to go. Those two started nine games for Georgia at left and right tackle respectively during the 2020 season. Entering the year, they had just one start combined.
“You have to plan these things a year out,” Smart said in February of 2020. We’re looking at this plan and saying, ‘Okay, these guys have to be ready to play, possibly next year, but really the next year.’”
McClendon was a redshirt freshman for Georgia last year. He played so well he ultimately earned Freshmen All-American honors after starting the final nine games at right tackle for the Bulldogs. The only other redshirt freshman to earn a start last season was Xavier Truss, and that only happened after Ben Cleveland opted out of Georgia’s bowl game against Cincinnati.
The redshirt freshmen on Georgia’s 2020 team totaled 10 starts. For the 13 redshirt freshmen on Georgia’s 2021 team, that number should be much higher.
At cornerback, Georgia will need significant contributions from both Kelee Ringo and Jalen Kimber. Ringo redshirted due to needing surgery to repair a torn labrum stemming from his time in high school. Kimber did it so he could put on weight to handle the physical rigors of the SEC.
Now one or both will be asked to be a starting-caliber cornerback for the Bulldogs in 2021. Even if Georgia does go out and bring in former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick.
Related: Georgia football positioned to add former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick
On the offensive line, Ratledge, Van Pran and Jones will also push for starting spots. Ratledge may be the closest to cracking the starting lineup at right guard, but Van Pran and Jones could see the field as well.