041622 Athens: Georgia running back Daijun Edwards (30) is tackled by Georgia linebacker Xavian Sorey Jr. (18) and Malaki Starks (24) during the G - Day game at Sanford Stadium Saturday, April 16, 2022, in Athens, Ga. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Kirby Smart sorting Georgia roster, drilling young starters, ‘susceptible to lack of experience with mistakes’

ATHENS — Georgia players have competed and strained throughout the offseason, pushing through early morning workouts and hot afternoons.

Two scrimmages into fall camp, Coach Kirby Smart and his staff are ready to start making the tough decisions, among them, “Who’s getting on the bus?”

That’s code for making the travel squad, and this is where special teams contributors get a leg up on the competition when push comes to shove among reserves.

The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs open the season at 3:30 p.m. on Sept. 3 against No. 11 Oregon at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, and Smart indicated the players’ prep for the Ducks will begin in earnest later this week.

But first things first, Georgia has to try to figure out what it will look like at the start of the season, taking player performances and depth at key positions in mind.

“We’ll be reassigning our team and our roster … we are going to look at the numbers and say, ‘If we have to go on the road in the SEC, who are the 70 (on the travel squad),” Smart said.

“Who are the 80? Who are the 85? Where do those numbers fall? What are the decisions we have to make?”

One thing is for certain, the head coach is loading up on young players that will have to contribute.

Whether that’s a “rebuild” or “reload” is a matter of semantics — and probably results.

“If you just mean the freshmen class, probably half of them will have to play a role, whether that’s special teams or as a backup or substitution role when they go in and play — some of them may start,” Smart said.

“But if you talk about young players like guys who didn’t play last year but will have to play more this year, there’s certainly even a larger number,” he said.

The defense is particularly younger this season, though still very talented.

Defensive backs Malaki Starks (true freshman) and Kamari Lassiter (sophomore) are two of the young players expected to play big roles, and Smart has been pleased with their progress. Sophomore Nyland Green and freshman Daylen Everette have also had strong moments at cornerback.

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On the defensive line, Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins (redshirt freshman) and Mykel Williams (true freshmen) figure to work into the rotation at end, while Christen Miller and Bear Alexander are true freshmen names to watch inside, along with redshirt freshman Jonathan Jefferson.

Sophomore Jamon Dumas-Johnson leads a talented young group of linebackers that includes Xavian Sorey (redshirt freshman), Samael Mondon (sophomore), Jalon Walker (freshman) and Marvin Jones (freshman).

But there are many more young Bulldogs in the mix that can and will emerge.

“You get up into 45, 55 percent of our roster would be freshmen and sophomores playing, that actually go play.” Smart said.

If that seems like a lot, it is, and that’s why Smart has been drilling the Bulldogs more than ever in fall drills.

Youth and inexperience are not optimal in the SEC, regardless of the talent level.

“Any time you have that, you’re susceptible to lack of experience with mistakes, anxiety mistakes, composure mistakes,” Smart said.

“So we try to create situations in practice to make them want to do right as much as they can and feel like they’re in a game, so that when they’re in a game, they can just relax and go play.

“There’s a lot of those guys that are going to help us. I think more and more we’re finding every year there’s more freshmen that have to play and contribute.”

Smart has talked about how everything has gotten accelerated, with several early enrollees often leading to several underclassmen declaring for the draft.

Of the Bulldogs recent NFL record-breaking draft class, only four of the 15 were underclassmen - -Travon Walker, Lewis Cine, Nakobe Dean and George Pickens.

The fact Georgia had an inordinately high number of NFL draft-eligible players return for their senior years last season was key to the national title run.

This season, however, the Bulldogs lack that sort of senior depth, putting Smart and his staff to work sorting things out for what promises to be an interesting run with new stars emerging.

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