ATHENS – When Georgia meets as a football team, the seniors sit in the front row. Last year Kirby Smart looked there and saw too few faces. This year he looks in those same seats and sees most of his best players.
Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, the team’s star tailbacks. Isaiah Wynn, the team’s best offensive lineman. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, the charismatic outside linebackers. Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis, the cornerstones of the secondary. John Atkins, the mainstay of the defensive line.
“When you have older guys on the team, they kind of know how to do it right,” Bellamy said. “And if they’re contributing on the field also, it gives the younger guys more reason to look up to them.”
The freshmen get a lot of attention on this Georgia team, especially the starting quarterback, Jake Fromm. But make no mistake: This is a veteran team.
The majority of the starters on Georgia’s offense and defense are upperclassmen. The offense started three seniors and three juniors in the game Saturday at Vanderbilt, and the defense started five seniors and three juniors.
The result: Georgia is 6-0, has vaulted to No. 4 in the country and is outscoring opponents this year by an average of 35-14.
“There is something you can’t replicate: a game rep. And game experience really does help you in your game,” senior tight end Jeb Blazevich said.
Last year Smart remarked on the relative lack of seniors, with only 11 on scholarship. Only four of them were starters, and only one was a fifth-year senior who had been with the team from the beginning.
This year Smart has 16 seniors on scholarship, five of them fifth-year players, plus two walk-ons who are essentially starters (punter Cameron Nizialek and fullback Christian Payne.)
Bellamy tied the team’s ability to blow out teams this year – every game other than the one against Notre Dame has been decided by at least 21 points – to maturity.
“That’s definitely what it is. We kind of felt like last year we let a lot of teams off the hook when we had them down,” Bellamy said of a season in which Georgia’s biggest win was by 14 points and it blew leads and lost to Tennessee, Vanderbilt and Georgia Tech. “This year it’s been a different story, and I think that’s because of the maturity of the team on both sides of the ball. We know that in this league it’s a four-quarter game.
“And I think last year we looked at the scoreboard too much. Even though coach Smart preached, ‘Never look at it too much,’ I think as you get older you really understand not to look at the scoreboard, just play football the way you’re going to play it. The games will end in your favor. I definitely think that’s the mindset of this team right now. Even when we’re up 20, 30, 40, we don’t look up at the scoreboard. That just shows the sign of maturity.”
The veteran makeup of the team also helps with continuity, Atkins pointed out.
“We’ve been playing together for three years now. The ‘mo’ is there around the team,” Atkins said. “The leadership is like, ‘OK I know who I’m beside. I know what Tyler [Clark] is going to do, I know what Trent [Thompson is] going to do, I know what DaQuan [Hawkins-Muckle] is going to do. I know what Bellamy is going to do. It’s just the trust that we’ve developed.”
That’s not to say it’s a completely veteran team. But the full impact of the highly rated 2017 recruiting class has been mitigated by the performance of the older players.
Georgia has played 17 freshmen, tied for the fourth-most nationally. (LSU and Illinois are first with 20 each.) But only three freshmen have started this year for Georgia: right tackle Andrew Thomas every game, quarterback Jake Fromm the past five games and safety Richard LeCounte in one game.
That’s not to say, according to veterans, that the class won’t eventually have more of an impact. Their growth won’t be stunted by not playing right away. In fact, Bellamy said, it will be helped.
“Anybody would be a fool not to learn from older people in front of them,” he said.
It’s not just seniors. Roquan Smith, the team’s top defensive player, is a junior. So is leading receiver Terry Godwin, as are key defensive linemen Jonathan Ledbetter and Thompson. There’s experience everywhere. And Georgia is reaping the benefits – both on the field and in the locker room.
“It really helps a lot, teaching the young guys how to practice, not to take teams lightly, and don’t look at TV when they say we’re No. 4,” Bellamy said. “Just having an older team helps blocking out a lot of that outside noise that comes with having an undefeated team so far.”