Georgia football-UGA
Kirby Smart is more concerned with replacing Azeez Ojulari's pass rush than the secondary entering the season. Third-year player Nolan Smith will be asked to fill big shoes. Brynn Anderson AP Photos

Kirby Smart: most pressing defensive concern entering Clemson game up front

ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart is undefeated against Top 10-ranked non-conference opponents (4-0), so it only makes sense he embraces playing a challenging opening game opponent like Clemson.

“It’s a large game on the national media stage, (but) for us, it’s a chance to see where we are with this team,” Smart, 10-6 overall vs. Top 10 teams, said in an interview with CBS at the SEC Media Days in Hoover, Ala.

“This team is different, and their team is different. They just lost a franchise quarterback, so for both of us, it’s about finding out where we are. The best way to find that out is to play a really good team.”

The Bulldogs play the Tigers at 7:30 p.m. on Sept. 4 at Bank of America Stadium in Charlotte, N.C., in both teams’ season-opening game.

To Smart’s point, it’s a litmus test of sorts for both programs, both of which have sizable holes to fill with key player shaving moved on to the NFL.

Clemson most notably lost overall No. 1 pick Trevor Lawrence, while UGA is replacing first- and second-round NFL picks at cornerback, along with second-round pick and SEC sacks leader Azeez Ojulari.

“The Azeez loss is probably more impactful than maybe even the corners,” said Smart, expected to look first to 2019 No. 1 overall recruit Nolan Smith to replace Ojulari in the starting lineup.

The Bulldogs also have Robert Beal, MJ Sherman, Xavian Sorey and Chaz Chambliss at Ojulari’s former position. Adam Anderson and Travon Walker are also expected to be a prominent part of the Bulldogs’ pressure packages.

“Both corners were drafted before Azeez, but the loss of that pass rush could be critical if we don’t find somebody to replace that,” Smart said.

“We feel like we have some good young secondary players, they’ve got to go play. That’s part of this offseason discussion is who’s going be the key factors. We’ve got some good young players, they’ve got to grow up and go play.”

Second-year player Jalen Kimber is projected to start at cornerback opposite to Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick, but UGA plays a three-man rotation and veteran Ameer Speed figures into that mix.

Second-year cornerback Kelee Ringo is coming off labrum surgery and is also making strides at the position, as is freshman Nyland Green.

Georgia’s September schedule this season includes games with UAB and rebuilding programs South Carolina and Vanderbilt.

“A lot of times you don’t find out a lot about yourself when you don’t play a quality opponent, and we get to play a quality opponent,” Smart said of the Clemson game. “We’ll know a lot about that will help guys in SEC Play, and I love playing those kinds of games, so I’m excited.”

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