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Kirby Smart, NFL-bound Georgia players share insights on 2021 leaders
Before Georgia outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari heads to the NFL, where he will likely be taken in the first round of the 2021 NFL Draft, he wanted to make sure everyone knew the Georgia outside linebacker room was still in great hands.
“There’s going to be a whole lot of sacks coming this fall for sure,” Ojulari said. “They’re going to let Nolan [Smith], Adam Anderson and don’t sleep on [Robert] Beal too, they’re going to let those boys come off the edge. It’s going to be a dangerous spot. Adam’s fast, Beal’s strength. They let those boys loose it’s going to be a crazy fall in Athens.”
If Ojulari proves to be prophetic, that would be an absolute win for the Bulldogs as the soon-to-be NFL draft pick led the SEC in sacks a season ago. The Bulldogs almost replace Jermaine Johnson, who transferred to Florida State.
Ojulari wasn’t the only one who spilled the tea on some of the players on Georgia’s 2021 team. While Georgia’s draft-bound Bulldogs spent much of Wednesday showcasing themselves, they also provided some insight on a handful of key players for next season’s team.
Related: Azeez Ojulari demonstrates why he’s the first player NFL teams ask Kirby Smart about
Tight end Tre’ McKitty gave some encouraging thoughts on Darnell Washington, who is entering his second season in the program.
“He’s going to be a problem,” McKitty said. “I said it a lot, even talking to teams this offseason, guys that come in as a 5-star think they know it all and have a big head but he really came in willing to learn. He came to me asking questions all the time and that’s huge. I think he’s going to be a great player in the future.”
Washington actually had superior production to that of McKitty a season ago. The sophomore really made strides in the final two games of the season, demonstrating the promise McKitty talked about. Washington probably won’t post Kyle Pitts-type numbers next season, but he seems poised to become a bigger part of the offense.
Defensively, Monty Rice spoke his mind on junior linebacker Nakobe Dean.
“He’s a very, very, very smart kid,” Rice said. “You can tell he was brought up well by his parents. He got the whole package, he can play football, he can do school work. He’s going to be successful as long as he keeps doing what he’s been doing.”
To Rice’s point, Dean led Georgia in tackles a season ago and seems like the type of player poised to go from a player Georgia fans know to someone every SEC fan knows about. Dean won’t be a full participant in spring practices this year due to offseason surgery, but with as much football as Dean has played, he might be one of the fewer players that can afford to rest this spring.
Dean was also the first defensive player Kirby Smart singled out as a leader on the defensive side of the ball.
But Dean wasn’t the only player who Smart identified as a leader.
“We’ve got several guys that are returning that I think are tremendous leaders. Zamir [White] jumps out the way he sets the tone. He and James Cook both set an example. Jamaree [Salyer] and [Justin] Shaffer, Warren Ericson. They’re all doing a tremendous job on the offensive side of the ball.”
White, Cook, Salyer and Shaffer all had the possibility to turn pro following the 2020 season. Had they done so, they would’ve been working out alongside Ojulari and Rice. Instead, they’ll try to take the Georgia offense to the next level.
Georgia brings back just about every major contributor at the skill position spots on the 2021 offense. Replacing Ben Cleveland and center Trey Hill are the biggest hole on the offensive side of the ball.
The former, like his head coach, praised Salyer and Shaffer. Because of their veteran presence, Cleveland thinks the offensive line will be more than ready to handle the rigors of the 2021 season.
“We developed a lot of depth this year with COVID and everything going on,” Cleveland said. “We had a lot of guys play different spots so I think that’s going to help them out drastically this year.
“I think Jamaree (Salyer) and Justin Shaffer, some of the guys who have been here for a while to really take up that leadership role. I think those guys are going to handle it just fine.”