ATHENS — There wasn’t time for any pep talks or long speeches when Cade Mays trotted onto the field and into the Georgia Bulldogs’ offensive huddle at South Carolina this past Saturday. So Lamont Gaillard kept his message short.
“Get in, let’s ball,” the senior center told the freshman tackle.
The substitution came on the Bulldogs’ second offensive play from scrimmage in the second half. On the first, All-American left tackle Andrew Thomas had gone down with an injury to his left ankle. It took Mays a minute to get on the field because he had to change out of the No. 42 jersey he wears as a fullback/H-back blocking specialist into the No. 77 jersey he wears when he’s a regular, everyday offensive lineman.
Then Mays proceeded to play like anything but a regular, everyday offensive lineman. Georgia didn’t miss a beat with the true freshman from Knoxville at left tackle. The Bulldogs scored on that drive and then the next two in what ended up being a game-breaking, 21-0 third quarter. Georgia won 41-17.
Gaillard said did take a second to offer Mays a little encouragement before they broke the huddle. “I said, ‘I already know you’re good for this moment. Now let’s go.'”
This is, of course, the thing that separates Georgia from being just another good SEC team these days. In bringing in Mays in the heat of the moment, the Bulldogs substituted a consensus 5-star prospect for a consensus freshman All-American. And then they went about their business as if nothing at all had occurred.
To be sure, losing a starting left tackle to injury is never nothing. But the Bulldogs were no worse for wear with Mays in the game. And it certainly was a major relief to learn that Thomas had suffered an ankle injury and not some kind of season-ending knee-ligament tear or something of that sort.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart on Monday didn’t shut the door on Thomas possibly playing this week, even though the opponent is just the Blue Raiders of Middle Tennessee.
“That’s still unknown,” Smart said at his weekly news conference. “We’ll see how he is tomorrow. (Monday) he’s going to rehab and work on it. He’s already been doing some stuff on the treadmill.”
Of course, after Mays’ display against South Carolina, certainly there is no need to rush back Thomas.
Mays wasn’t perfect in the game. Smart said the 6-foot-6, 318-pound tackle “made some mistakes” and “did some things that weren’t real good.” But he also did enough things right that he contributed to Georgia gaining 213 of their 226 yards in the third quarter. D’Andre Swift had on a 13-yard run behind Thomas on the play in which Thomas was injured.
But there had already been a lot of buzz about Mays going back to spring practice. He entered Georgia as an early enrollee last January and had impressed the coaching staff with his work ethic and ability to absorb the offensive playbook.
“I was excited for Cade as much as I was disappointed for Andrew,” Smart said. “He came in at midyear and worked hard. My main reaction was I’m glad we practice the way we do. He’s going up against really good players day-in and day-out, so it’s not unusual for him.”
Smart said was incredulous when asked if he was surprised that Mays was the first in for the Bulldogs at left tackle. Junior D’Marcus Hayes, senior Kendall Baker and starting right tackle Isaiah Wilson all had worked at left tackle. And, ultimately, the decision was up to line coach Sam Pittman.
“There are no surprises when you’re prepared,” Smart said. “That’d been talked about long before anything happened in the game. … That was a decision that we all made as coaches based on what had happened in practice.”
Perhaps, but it came as a bit of a surprise to Gaillard. The unofficial captain of the offense had also seen a number of different players roll in and out at left tackle during practice. So he wasn’t sure who was going to come trotting onto the field after Thomas had to be helped off it.
But, Gaillard added, he was sure the Bulldogs were going to be fine.
“I expect anybody to come in and play,” Gaillard said. “Whoever (Pittman) throws out there I know it’s going to be best for the team. So it doesn’t matter who we put in, they’re going to be ready to play. Cade came in and played great and I’m proud of him.”