What are you hoping or expecting to see from Kirby Smart’s 2024 Dawgs this spring?

Tuesday brings the first of 15 practices that will culminate in the April 13 G-Day intrasquad game at Sanford Stadium. (The starting time and ESPN channel carrying the game have not yet been announced.)

Then it’ll be time for the 15-day spring transfer portal window, when the Dawgs likely will lose a few folks who aren’t satisfied with their spot on the depth chart.

It’s estimated that Georgia begins spring practice with somewhere around 89 players on scholarship.

With a half dozen more freshmen coming in over the summer, the inevitable portal losses will help Georgia get its roster down to the 85 scholarships that Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision programs are allowed to have when pre-season practice begins.

Safety Malaki Starks returns for another season in the Georgia secondary. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

As we’ve become accustomed to seeing, the Dawgs once again are loaded with top-notch talent (and stand a good chance of being the preseason No. 1 team again).

Still, there are a lot of departed players to replace at key positions — especially in the secondary, where three starters have left. I feel pretty good about that area, though, since the Dawgs have safety Malaki Starks and cornerback Daylen Everette returning. Julian Humphrey and Daniel Harris have a good bit of experience and a lot of eyes will be on five-star prospect K.J. Bolden.

However, based on what we saw last year, an area where some improvement is needed is the defensive front.

As I mentioned a few weeks ago, a look at how Georgia did against Alabama in last season’s SEC Championship Game, compared with how eventual national champion Michigan did in the Rose Bowl, shows an obvious contrast: The Wolverines’ defense, particularly up front, was much more disruptive against the Tide than was Georgia’s.

Defensive line starters Nazir Stackhouse, Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins and Warren Brinson return and there’s a lot of young talent behind them, plus portal arrival Xzavier McLeod from South Carolina.

Veteran Nazir Stackhouse is back on the Dawgs’ defensive line. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

However, Georgia’s pass rush remains a work in progress. Veteran Chaz Chambliss is more of a run-stopper than a pass rusher, defensive end Mykel Williams was moved to outside linebacker for the Orange Bowl and did pretty well, and rising sophomore Jordan Hall also is one to watch, but that’s an area where I’ll definitely be hoping to see some improvement.

Containing mobile quarterbacks who are a threat to run is another area where the Dawgs need to improve, and the inside linebackers play a key role there. While Jamon Dumas-Johnson decided to transfer to Kentucky, the Dawgs have experienced returnees in Smael Mondon (if he can stay healthy), CJ Allen and Raylen Wilson.

Last year’s offensive line looked great some of the time, but was a little inconsistent. Earnest Greene, Tate Ratledge, Xavier Truss, Dylan Fairchild and Tate Ratledge return, and the rest of the rotation has a lot of playing time. Jared Wilson is expected to take over from the departed Sedrick Van Pran at center.

Dillon Bell should be one of Carson Beck’s prime receivers this coming season. (Hyosub Shin/AJC) (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/Dawgnation)

The Dawgs have taken a bit of a hit in depth on the OL, with several reserves deciding to transfer elsewhere, but they still have a lot of talent, and they rotate a lot, so most of the players have game experience.

Meanwhile, many college football observers expect Carson Beck to be among the nation’s leading quarterbacks and a possible Heisman Trophy candidate, so we don’t really have any question mark at that position. However, it’ll be interesting to see whether freshman Ryan Puglisi is able to challenge the returning Gunner Stockton for the backup job.

Cash Jones, seen in last year’s game against UAB, is one of the returning running backs for UGA. (Jason Getz/AJC) (Jason Getz/Dawgnation)

In the backfield, Georgia has to replace both of its leading rushers, Daijun Edwards and Kendall Milton. Experienced Florida transfer Trevor Etienne is considered the likely starter, but Georgia is well stocked at running back, with Roderick Robinson, Andrew Paul and Cash Jones in the mix. (Branson Robinson still is rehabbing a knee injury.) If I had to pick a likely breakout from that group behind Etienne, I’d put my money on Cash.

Elsewhere on the offense, Georgia might not have another generational talent like Brock Bowers at tight end, but Oscar Delp, Lawson Luckie and Stanford transfer Ben Yurosek (who will arrive this summer) should be solid.

Ditto at receiver, where the Dawgs have to replace Ladd McConkey. Dillon Bell, who also got quite a few carries as a back last season, probably will step into McConkey’s go-to role, but the Dawgs have quite a bit of returning talent, including Dominic Lovett, Rara Thomas and speedster Arian Smith. When you add in experienced transfers London Humphreys (from Vanderbilt), Michael Jackson III (Southern Cal) and Colbie Young (Miami), it appears the receiver corps could be a strength for the Dawgs this coming season.

On special teams, with place-kicker Peyton Woodring and punter Brett Thorson back, the chief questions are who’ll kick off (with Jared Zirkel having transferred to Texas A&M) and who’ll be returning kicks. In the latter role, walk-on Mekhi Mews left for a scholarship at Houston, but receiver Anthony Evans looked good late in the season. Also, Bell has experience as a returner and transfer Jackson might get a look.

Another interesting twist this spring will be Georgia trying out the new direct coach-to-player helmet communication to one player at a time on the field that the NCAA is expected to allow starting in the fall. Smart has said the Dawgs will be trying out that technology this spring.

Linebacker Chaz Chambliss is seen during last year’s spring practices. (Tony Walsh/UGA) (Tony Walsh/Dawgnation)

It also will be interesting to see whether coaching staff turnover — there will be four new assistants this year — has any impact on Georgia’s play.

Smart’s main focus in his new coaching hires seems to have been on recruiting prowess, but we know what receivers coach James Coley (who previously had that position under Smart) and co-defensive coordinator and safeties coach Travaris Robinson (hired from Alabama), can do. It will be interesting to see whether new defensive backs coach Donte Williams from Southern Cal and new running backs coach Josh Crawford, who previously was Georgia Tech’s receivers coach, can maintain the Dawgs’ level of proficiency in their areas.

Of course, fans naturally look forward to the G-Day game for early answers to some of these questions and perhaps a clue as to who might become this year’s breakout star. But we need to keep individual G-Day performances in perspective: Stars of the spring game don’t always live up to that promise once the season starts.

That has happened several times in recent years, with the latest example being Mews, one of the standout players from last spring’s G-Day game.

Mekhi Mews scores during last year’s G-Day game. (Hyosub Shin/AJC) (HYOSUB SHIN / AJC/Dawgnation)

On G-Day last year, the redshirt sophomore showed off his speed on a couple of kick returns that didn’t count (G-Day rules) and with his run after the catch on a 54-yard reception. He was the leading receiver that day, with 4 catches for 91 yards. Smart summed him up as “an explosive guy.”

He also started out the regular season looking like he was going to be Georgia’s next superstar walk-on (in the tradition of Stetson Bennett), making big catches (including a screen pass in the season opener where he broke free, made some nice moves and showed good speed on a long scoring play) and long punt returns. Two games into the season, Mews looked like a potential MVP.

However, he subsequently started showing a tendency to fumble or misjudge his kick receptions. He had some good returns (a couple of which were wiped out by penalties), but he never really did move up in the receiver rotation.

And by the end of the SEC Championship game, Evans had taken over punt return duty. Shortly after the game against Bama, Mews announced that he was entering the portal.

So, let’s enjoy G-Day for what it is — essentially a scrimmage with a big crowd — but keep in mind that what we see on that day might not be what we see once the games count.


I’ll dip into the Junkyard Mail next week, and I’d like to hear what you’re hoping to see from the Dawgs this spring and any concerns you have about the upcoming season. Also, feel free to ask questions — or share your views on anything related to UGA athletics. You can post in the comments below or email me at junkyardblawg@gmail.com.