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Nolan Smith will be asked to play a bigger role in the Georgia defense this year.

Nolan Smith, Darnell Washington among the players Georgia football needs to make a leap this spring

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Nolan Smith, Darnell Washington among the Georgia players needing to take a step forward this spring

When you play as many players as Georgia does, you’ll have quite a few that have some form of experience every year. Sure Georgia losses major contributors every year, but with Kirby Smart playing as many players as he does, very rarely does he have to start over.

This can sometimes work against Georgia, as Jermaine Johnson left Georgia because of having to rotate instead of getting a star turn at one of the outside linebacker spots. But for the most part, it puts Georgia in a spot where it always has a healthy number of players who are able to go from part-time player to full-time starter.

Last season we saw Nakobe Dean do this at linebacker, Zamir White at running back and Lewis Cine at safety.

Georgia will need a handful of players to make similar leaps this fall, as the Bulldogs must replace a number of long-time contributors. The 15 spring practices, which start for Georgia on March 16, will offer the opportunity for a few players to make the leap to being major contributors this fall.

Darnell Washington: Among skill players, you could mention Kendall Milton and Arian Smith as possible candidates. But they both have established veterans ahead of them on the depth chart to go along with a host of other talented options.

Washington has a much clearer path to playing time. The sophomore from Las Vegas will split starters’ responsibilities with junior John FitzPatrick, but Washington figures to have much greater upside in the passing game.

In Georgia’s final two games, Washington hauled in five catches for 106 yards. He was a total mismatch physically. Now having close to a full year in the Georgia program, Washington seems like an excellent candidate to become a bigger piece of the Georgia passing offense.

His — or any tight ends — involvement may never satisfy what fans want to see from the position. But Washington has the chance to use this offseason to show a larger portion of the college football world why he was a 5-star recruit.

Related: ‘Unbelievable upside’: What to make of late-season surge for tight end Darnell Washington

Warren EricsonMuch like Cine did to end the 2019 season, Ericson used an injury to a long-time starter to earn more playing time to end the 2020 season. After Trey Hill underwent knee surgery, Ericson went on to start in Georgia’s final two games.

Ericson will be competing with Sedrick Van Pran at the center spot while also being a candidate to play at right guard.

When offensive line coach Matt Luke spoke last week, he made it a point to praise Ericson and the leadership role he is expected to play for Georgia this season.

“I do think that, moving forward, we do have some pieces to the puzzle, but they have to go in there and get the experience,” Luke said. “That is why guys like Jamaree [Salyer], guys like [Justin] Shaffer, guys like Warren Ericson, that have been around, they can help set the tempo and lead these guys moving forward with spring coming up.”

Ericson seems to have some sort of role on Georgia’s offensive line in 2021. The question is where is that and how does it expand off what he did during the 2020 season.

Related: Matt Luke explains Georgia offensive line shuffle, what lies ahead

Travon WalkerEveryone knows Walker’s name at this point and he’s already made a handful of wow plays for the Bulldogs.

He’s been a key part of Georgia’s pass rush package in this first two seasons. Now with Malik Herring off to the NFL, Walker stands to step in at his spot at defensive end.

In his first two seasons, Walker has 3.5 sacks and 5.5 tackles for loss. Anyone who watched Herring knows that his impact extended beyond his statistical production.

The same will likely be true for Walker as he becomes a leader of the Georgia defense.

Nolan Smith: Smith entered the Georgia program with sky-high expectations as the No. 1 overall player in the 2019 signing class.

To this point in his career, he’s served as a role player, backing-up Azeez Ojualri at Georgia’s Jack outside linebacker position.

Ojulari led Georgia in sacks in each of the past two seasons and is poised to be a first-round pick in next month’s NFL draft. And he leaves some decently-sized shoes for Smith to fill.

Smith will get plenty of reps this spring, as Ojulari and Johnson are both gone while 2020 signee MJ Sherman is recovering from offseason surgery.

Smith had 2.5 sacks in each of his first two seasons at Georgia. The Bulldogs are going to need that number to be higher in 2021 if Georgia is going to accomplish its many goals.

Quay WalkerWhen Monty Rice picked up a foot injury midseason, Walker earned more snaps over the course of the campaign,  including starting games against Kentucky and Cincinnati.

With Rice graduating, Walker has the opportunity to take over his role on a full-time basis. As a junior, he finished as the team’s fourth-leading tackle with 43 tackles.

This spring though Walker will have an even bigger role than what he might have this fall as Nakobe Dean is recovering from offseason surgery. Dean, who led Georgia in tackles last fall, will try to make his own leap this fall in going from a good player to a great one.

Walker has always been able to make the highlight-worthy plays, showing off his impressive athleticism. If he’s able to be more consistent, as Rice so often was for the Georgia defense, Walker will go a long way in easing any concerns about replacing Rice.

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