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Tony Walsh/UGA
Outside linebacker Nolan Smith shows some spirit during Georgia’s second football practice of the spring.

Kirby Smart’s Dawgs are back in pads, and fans have a spring in their step

This week, I made my annual Hartman Fund contribution and sent in my season tickets renewal order, while Kirby Smart’s Dawgs had their first three spring practice sessions, and finally put on pads Saturday. 

There’s still a long way to go before UGA makes it to kickoff against mighty Clemson, scheduled for Sept. 4 in Charlotte — and last year taught us the wisdom of not taking anything for granted during a pandemic, especially in sports. 

Still, even baby steps toward a normal college football season feel good.

No big news came out of those first three of 15 spring practices, aside from Kenny McIntosh being out for the rest of the spring with an injured elbow. However, this time of year, even the few tidbits that did emerge are gobbled up by football-starved Dawgs fans. 

The Dawgs’ offense is loaded with returning starters, including tailback Zamir White. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Considering this time last year spring practice had been canceled completely due to COVID-19, it wasn’t really that revelatory for Smart to say his team is “light years ahead of where they were” back then, especially at quarterback. As Smart noted, this time last year the Dawgs “didn’t know who we were, we had no identity, we didn’t even know who JT Daniels was,” since the former USC quarterback had not transferred yet to UGA.

So far, in Smart’s estimation, the offense is ahead of the rebuilding defense, although that’s not really a surprise. There are a couple of question mark spots on the line, but Georgia’s offense returned most of its end-of-season starters (including Daniels, Zamir White, James Cook and George Pickens).

Speaking Thursday, after the second practice, Smart reflected: “Since I’ve been here, it seems like we’ve had a very experienced defense a couple times, and an experienced offense one year when [Jake] Fromm was back, but we didn’t have our wideouts back. It’s pretty unique to have that much experience on offense.”

Quarterback JT Daniels has improved his mobility during the offseason, Kirby Smart said. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

Smart is particularly pleased that Daniels finally has had a chance to get to know his teammates, and the program. “JT is a really good leader,” the head coach said, “and I think the fact that he has come back, and he has had a little more time — you know, he never got a chance to really get to know these guys. I mean he showed up and we are in COVID, then he wasn’t playing, then he was playing, and then the year was over. So, he is just now kind of embracing the relationship with those guys.”

Smart said that he thinks Daniels matches up well with offensive coordinator Todd Monken’s system, “because it gives him the freedom to do some things at the line, which is his strength. His mobility has improved this offseason. He’s been able to move around, conditioning himself with the [rehabbed] knee. So, we’re excited to see where it goes.”

Of course, the defense is not without returning talent, with big Jordan Davis a notable presence in the middle of the line, and there are other promising names, including Nolan Smith, Adam Anderson, Travon Walker, Nakobe Dean and Lewis Cine. 

Cine, for one, has embraced the idea of keeping track each practice about who’s ahead, offense or defense. “We love going back and forth, that’s what makes practice fun,” the returning safety said in a post-practice media session this week. “The competition is good on good. So that is what makes practice very fun — the back and forth.”

One of the more intriguing ideas that did emerge this week was Smart talking about speedy pass rusher Anderson, who had the second most sacks on the team last season, playing as sort of a hybrid outside linebacker and star or nickel back, instead of using a cornerback (who are in short supply this year) at the latter position.  

“Basically, when you are an outside backer, you are the star,” Smart explained. “I know that sounds complicated. … In a 3-4 system, you have two outside backers. Every snap we play 3-4, we have a star that is an outside backer.”

Georgia wide receiver Kearis Jackson (10) protects the ball during the Bulldogs’ first practice session of the spring. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

The idea, he said, is to have Anderson rush the QB about half the time, but also have him drop into pass coverage when necessary. “So, we are challenging him, asking him to do a lot that, if we had to play a game tomorrow, we wouldn’t ask him to do all these things. But we are trying to teach him and have a growth mindset with him,” Smart said.

Meanwhile, Cine, who plays safety, said that everyone in the secondary is spending some time at cornerback, where the Dawgs are seeking replacements for the departed Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell. “Kirby was not lying when he said everyone was getting a look at cornerback,” Cine said this week. “I mean, he’s tried everyone, including myself.”

That also includes 4-star early enrollee Lovasea Carroll, who signed with Georgia as a running back (a plentifully stocked position), but who has been moved to cornerback — at least, for now. (He’ll also play special teams.) 

“He’s embraced the position,” Smart said of Carroll. “He’s made some good plays; he’s had some bad plays. He’s not played this position, so to put him out there on some experienced wideouts and some guys who have played a lot of football is probably not fair to him. But, that’s how you grow, and that’s how you get better, by failing.”

The head coach added that, “I would not say that it’s permanent. I would say it’s a spring experiment, and we’ll go from there.”

Carroll’s switch probably is the most controversial move so far this spring in the minds of some fans, who have memories of past occasions when talented offensive players wasted time on defense. Mecole Hardman, Malcolm Mitchell and Richard Samuel come to mind. However, Smart had good luck with a similar move early in his tenure, when he switched running back Tae Crowder to linebacker. Crowder wound up a finalist for the Butkus Award, and has gone on to the NFL.

Smart also was asked this week whether any players have moved into contention to replace some of the departed team leaders. 

“We’ve got several guys that are returning that I think are tremendous leaders,” he said. “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. On the defensive side, Nakobe [Dean] is out there leading every day. He does a great job holding them accountable. Travon Walker has done that. Jordan [Davis] and Devonte [Wyatt] coming back helps tremendously. In the secondary, Chris [Smith] and Lewis [Cine] have played a lot of football. … Those guys are helping lead in the back end.”

Players also talked this week about efforts to build a championship mindset on the team. 

“We are doing more of that than we have in the past, so it has definitely changed a little bit,” punter Jake Camarda said, “but it has been really cool, and I think everyone has enjoyed it. It has been a good change.”

“We are having these deals called ‘Skull Sessions,’” offensive lineman Salyer said. The players split into groups and “talk about all types of stuff; what is your why, our team DNA, goal settings, all types of different aspects and we hit one different topic a week. … One of my favorite ones is the why, of course. If you can know a guy’s why, your teammate’s why, then you can push them to do things that you never thought they could do. It has made us a totally different team.”

He thinks that’s the key to winning a championship: “If you have a place where you want to be, if you want to get over the hump, like everybody’s harping on, we’ve got to change the way we think … because we have the talent, we have the coach, we have whatever we need. So, we’ve got to change the way we think.”

Head coach Kirby Smart, seen at UGA’s Pro Day, is making moves to shore up his team’s depleted secondary. (Tony Walsh/UGA)

On the coaching side, Smart also raised a few eyebrows this week when asked about the role of former Florida and South Carolina head coach Will Muschamp, who has joined his staff in the role of “analyst.” 

“He’s probably the guy I lean on the most in terms of coaching the coaches and just drill selection,” Smart said. “I ask him like, ‘hey how did you do this?’ ‘Did you do this period first or this one?’ Trying to find new things to make our program better, and I like having him out there a lot. I like having him in the meetings, because … he’s certainly a confident coach and very competent. It’s a lot more for me. … it’s helpful. It certainly builds confidence and gives you more ways to do things.”

Meanwhile, this week also saw the remaining 2,000 tickets to the G-Day game that had not been snapped up by Hartman Fund donors put on sale to the general public. They sold out in about 90 minutes. 

The spring intrasquad game between the Red and Black teams will maintain the pandemic-inspired reduced capacity of just over 20,000 used last season. 

For those who won’t be in attendance at Sanford Stadium for the game, set for 2 p.m. April 17, it will be televised — but not in the same manner as in past years, when ESPN used its various cable/satellite outlets for SEC spring scrimmages. This year, only Alabama’s game will be on ESPN, while the rest (including Georgia’s) will be on the SEC Network+ online streaming service. Get used to it folks, this is the way of the future.

UGA’s pandemic logo reminds fans that wearing masks will is recommended by public health experts. (University of Georgia)

Looking ahead, UGA is planning for Sanford Stadium crowds to be at full capacity this fall, but that’s assuming the pandemic is under control by then. The athletic association told Georgia Bulldog Club members that it will “adhere to all state and local health guidelines that are in place at the time of the 2021 season. Season schedule, ticket opportunities, stadium capacity and fan experiences are subject to change.”

Should there be any reasons the season can’t proceed in “normal fashion,” the athletic association said it will “address a new plan of action with the details available at that time.”

While mass vaccinations are presenting a largely promising outlook nationally for the fall, some folks (including frats at Duke University and those on spring break in Florida) seem to be jumping the gun a bit in declaring the pandemic over, the CDC warned this week. It’s certainly not over at UGA, where the Gym Dogs announced this week that they are sitting out the SEC tournament due to COVID-19 problems (though they anticipate being OK for the NCAA tournament), and baseball coach Scott Stricklin is missing several games after testing positive for the virus.

So, to echo Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp’s warning of last July, if you want to see college football this fall in the usual way, get vaccinated and keep wearing those masks.

Only when we get COVID-19 under control can life (and football) truly can return to normal.

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