ATHENS — Football is most often a game of attrition, and Georgia has been no exception with various projected starters missing the early part of the season.
Players such as George Pickens (knee), Tate Ratledge (foot), Jalen Kimber (shoulder), Dominick Blaylock (knee), Darnell Washington (foot) and Tykee Smith ((foot) have all missed time.
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The No. 2-ranked Bulldogs, however, figure to be on the verge of getting two players back, according to coach Kirby Smart: Smith and Washington.
“We haven’t ruled out this weekend, they are back, they were running at the end of last week, weight-bearing, like running on their own,” Smart said. “We’ve thought all along this would be the target—this week or next—but can’t say they’re going to be clear for this game.”
Georgia plays Vanderbilt at noon on Saturday in Nashville in a game that figures to be one-sided.
Here’s what the return of Washington and Smith might mean:
Much-needed secondary depth
Georgia had four players out of the defensive backfield selected in the 2021 NFL Draft, and another (D.J. Daniel) left early and signed as a free agent after being slowed by an injury last season.
Daniel was cut by Jacksonville, however, and many can only wonder how much better it would have been for the Bulldogs and him had he returned for this season. Daniel started most of 2019, and would be a veteran presence this season.
Instead, Georgia has moved on with former Clemson All-ACC cornerback Derion Kendrick proving himself a solid player on one side, and UGA flipping between Ameer Speed and Kelee Ringo on the other.
Speed is a veteran who has looked very good at times during the offseason but still has the sort of occasional lapses witnessed in the South Carolina game when he was beaten deep twice.
The reason Speed was in the game was because Ringo is still very much a work in progress, and there are some who wonder if he might not be better suited to play at the “star” or one of the safety positions eventually.
Smart said more young players have to get reps, and freshman cornerback Kamari Lassiter has the look and sound of that next player. Nyland Green, another freshman, has surprisingly not yet surfaced, even though he had the benefit of spring drills.
Much-needed receiver variety
JT Daniels is a surgeon at quarterback, aptly sniffing out the open target before the snap, and talented enough to deliver whatever kind of throw is needed to exploit the defense.
Washington will change the way defenses have to defend the Bulldogs and also provide an immediate lift to the run game because of his powerful blocking.
There aren’t any other players in college football like Washington when the second-year tight end is on his game, and that will leave opposing coordinators scrambling for combo-coverages that aim to neutralize him.
Bowers could become even more effective, as will talented running backs like James Cook and Kenny McIntosh, both of whom have proven dangerous when catching passes out of the backfield.
Latavious Brini and John FitzPatrick snaps
Brini came up with a big PBU in the end zone of Georgia’s 10-3 win over Clemson and appears to be improving at the “Star” position. Brini has earned reps moving forward.
Smith, however, is projected to be of All-America ilk and is a big hitter in run support. There’s no doubt Smith would provide a spark in what figures to be a hard-hitting affair with Arkansas on Oct. 2.
FitzPatrick will still get plenty of work, as he’s a “program” player who checks all the boxes and represents what Georgia football aims to be about. FitzPatrick has an NFL mentality and approach, though he lacks the dynamics of Brock Bowers and Washington.
Smart likes to keep solid players like Brini and FitzPatrick on the field as much as possible, so there’s a good chance their special teams presence will be elevated.