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Nolan Smith needs to have a big season for Georgia.

Kirby Smart challenges former 5-star Georgia football defensive players

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Kirby Smart wants to see more out of former 5-star defensive players this spring

The holes Georgia does have on its 2021 team come on the defensive side of the ball. The Bulldogs have to replace all of their starting cornerback experience. Gone too is pass-rushing ace Azeez Ojulari, along the ever-reliable Malik Herring and Monty Rice at defensive end and inside linebacker.

Georgia though has prepared for this as well as any team can when it comes to recruiting. Georgia has signed a top-four class in each of the past five recruiting cycles and the team is littered with former 5-star recruits.

Most of these names are well-known, such as Kelee Ringo, Travon Walker and Nolan Smith. But to this point in their careers, these highly-touted recruiters are still more known for their high-profile ranking than on-field production.

That’s why head coach Kirby Smart has no problem challenging some of those top recruits, who by now have grown accustomed to Smart’s coaching.

“Travon is the guy that’s got to have a big year for us,” Smart said. “Not only is he replacing Malik but in a lot of ways he’s replacing Azeez. I think everybody just assumes with Azeez being gone that it’s Nolan’s job. It’s not like that for us. Sixty to 70 percent of the snaps, Travon is Azeez and Nolan is Azeez. It’s just one’s left and one’s right. Both of those guys play defensive end a lot.”

With Herring and Ojulari gone, Walker and Smith have ready-made openings to move into. They’ve played situationally and often behind the two NFL-bound Bulldogs. Smith has xx sacks in his first two seasons, while Walker has added 3.5 sacks while also making an impact on special teams.

Now, Smart needs them to be integral parts of the Georgia defense. That’s exactly what Herring and Ojulari were for Georgia in recent seasons, excelling against the run and the pass.

Those two aren’t the only ones Smart challenged when Smart spoke with reporters last week. The Georgia head coach also spoke about Adam Anderson and how Georgia will use not only as a pass-rusher.

“We’re experimenting with right now is him having to cover, because he gives us the luxury of playing four DBs instead of five,” Smart said. “It accentuates our lack of DB, but it accentuates our strength at rush guys if we’re able to play with him.”

Anderson picked up 6.5 sacks a season ago, showing a bit more than Walker and Smith. Anderson’s length and speed offer him the ability to be like a queen on the chessboard. This is something Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter, two Bulldogs who are now in the NFL, did to an extent during their time in Athens.

Now, Georgia is hoping to use Anderson to similar success.

“So we’re challenging him, asking him to do a lot that if we had to play a game tomorrow, we would ask him to do all these things,” Smart said. “But we’re trying to teach him and have an open mindset with him.”

Related: Position switch could make Adam Anderson defensive weapon like no other

There is one defensive Bulldog, who was a 5-star prospect, that seems to be meeting Smart’s challenge to this point.

Though it might help linebacker Nakobe Dean that he’s limited due to labrum surgery he had following the conclusion of the 2020 season.

In multiple media appearances last week, Smart praised Dean for the leadership role he has already taken up in Georgia’s defense. The Bulldogs must replace Rice, though Dean already emerged as a starter during the 2020 season when he led the team in tackles.

“Nakobe (Dean) has stood out to me,” Smart said. “He’s been a guy that really is a tremendous leader and has taken on more of a vocal role. I think that’s big.”

Georgia can’t just have Dean replicate the strong season Georgia had in 2020. With all the Bulldogs lose, not just in the secondary, Dean also has to take his game to another level. The junior from Horn Lake, Miss., doesn’t need to become Roquan Smith reincarnate Georgia just needs him to take another step forward in his development.

The Bulldogs have just one 5-star recruit in their secondary, with Ringo holding the distinction. Unlike Smith and Walker, Ringo has no playing experience after missing his entire freshman season with labrum surgery. From an onfield standpoint, he’s truly an unknown.

The 5-star recruiting ranking he entered college with has developed high expectations for Ringo, even before factoring in how difficult the cornerback position has become in college football. Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell are going to be high draft picks in next month’s NFL draft. And they even got beat in coverage from time to time against Alabama and Florida.

That is exactly why Smart wants Ringo to have even higher expectations than what the Georgia fan base might have.

“He’s got a lot of confidence to gain in our system,” Smart said. “He’s got a lot to learn in our system, and you know what? He’s not shying away from it. I think there’s been a lot of hype around Kelee and I think for his sake he has to work. He has to decide that I’m going to work really hard and I’m going to live up to my expectations and not everybody else’s.”

Related: Kirby Smart outlines what Kelee Ringo must do this spring for Georgia football

Most teams in college football would love to be in a position where they have to replace a handful of contributions with some of the most athletic prospects in recent recruiting cycles. No one will cry poor for Georgia as it tries to plug in Walker, Smith and Ringo.

The Bulldogs though have to get the absolute most out of these former 5-star recruits. Beyond just the long-term recruiting ramifications of not developing your top prospects, Georgia can no longer afford for them to produce at the levels they previously had.

Georgia needs them to emerge and do so quickly with the first game of the 2021 season being against the Clemson Tigers.

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