ATHENS – When it comes to most bowls – the ones that don’t potentially lead to a championship game – most coaches break practices into two segments:
The week leading up to the game, when the team is at its bowl site, is for game preparation, just like a regular season. Prior to leaving for the bowl, however, coaches typically spend little time on the opponent, and more on themselves, almost like spring practice, or the first couple weeks of preseason.
“Any college coach in the country would tell you that any time you get ready for a bowl game it’s an opportunity for everybody on your team to get better,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “I mean we’re trying to get the entire team, from walk-ons to scholarship guys, to the seniors that are going to be leaving for the draft, we’re trying to improve our entire team at this time.
“We’ll certainly get a chance to see those younger guys, give them some extra work, let them dedicate themselves, and get better.”
How could that change the outlook for Georgia? Maybe a starting spot here or there could be up for grabs, or someone could make a push for more playing time. But likely nothing major. Teams want to go out with a win, and it sounds like Smart is no different.
It’s that first segment of bowl practice, the mini-preseason, when a few players, especially younger ones, may get a shot at a second impression. It’s happened before, not only with freshmen but with veterans: Three years ago an unheralded offensive lineman named Greg Pyke used bowl practices as a springboard to a three-year starting run.
Here’s a look at the players who still appear to be in the program’s future plans and could use that week to their benefit:
RB ELIJAH HOLYFIELD
The freshman has seen scant playing time – six rushes for 29 yards – after the surprising emergence of fellow freshman Brian Herrien. A lot of that had to do with Holyfield’s preseason ankle injury. But with the tailback position potentially opening up after the bowl, with Nick Chubb and Sony Michel pondering the pros, Holyfield will get another chance. Bowl practice would be a good time to do so, with highly-touted recruit Toneil Carter due to arrive for spring practice, and even higher-touted recruit D’Andre Swift next summer.
OLB CHAUNCEY MANAC
Another highly-touted freshman, Manac ended up taking a redshirt, mainly because of the depth chart, but also because he had a new defense to learn. But the talent is there, and with both starting outside linebackers also considering the pros – especially Davin Bellamy, a fourth-year junior – Manac’s time isn’t far away.
CB-KR MECOLE HARDMAN
Perhaps the most discussed Georgia player who didn’t actually play much this year. Hardman was a five-star recruit but his path was blocked by an experienced secondary, plus he had to learn a new position. Now, after a couple weeks away, perhaps bowl practice can be a fresh start, armed with better knowledge. At least one spot (nickel back) opens up this offseason. If Hardman is simply too good not to play somewhere, he’ll have a chance to show it again.
OL CHRIS BARNES, SOLOMON KINDLEY and BEN CLEVELAND
Offensive line coach Sam Pittman surely has a tentative plan for next year’s lineup, when three seniors from this year’s line will be gone. It may or may not include these current freshmen, but it can’t include all of them, as sixth man Dyshon Sims will almost certainly move into a starting spot. And with some highly-touted recruits due to arrive, Barnes, Kindley and Cleveland would help themselves a lot by making a move in bowl practice. Kindley had the best freshman season – making it into the Missouri game before injuries hit – while Cleveland has the most hype. But keep an eye on Barnes, who apparently improved a lot as the season went on.
OL PAT ALLEN, KENDALL BAKER and AULDEN BYNUM
These three veterans were second-teamers this year. It’s easy to discount them in favor of younger blood, but hey, three starting spots are about to open up, so things might be wide open.
CB JUWUAN BRISCOE, DL MICHAEL BARNETT, ILB TAE CROWDER
Briscoe lost his starting job in the Ole Miss game but is still only a sophomore. Barnett had trouble cracking the deep defensive line rotation, was moved to offensive line, then was moved back. Crowder’s move from tailback to inside linebacker actually stuck. There are a lot of stories like this of veterans whose season didn’t go the preferred way – CB Rico McGraw and WR Jayson Stanley spring to mind as well – who could really use a strong bowl practice week to get back in the forefront of their coaches’ minds before all those hyped freshmen arrive.