Kirby Smart awaits pro decisions of key Georgia players

As he stood covered in sweat and green sports drink in a hallway outside the Georgia locker room, coach Kirby Smart gently rubbed the head of his youngest son, Andrew. He was uncharacteristically relaxed. Relief was apparent on his face.

The Bulldogs had just answered some questions Wednesday night with a 26-14 win over Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. The game, indeed, mean something. The team's youthful stars validated their shiny pedigree and Georgia got a postseason win after four consecutive losses.

About all that, Smart felt very good.

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“I finally got a Sugar Bowl victory,” said Smart, who lost here last year and a few as Alabama’s defensive coordinator, too. “I’ve been to a lot of these and didn’t get many wins, but I got one this time, and I’m proud of this team.”

Missing a half dozen starters and several other players for various reasons against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl, the No. 5-ranked Bulldogs (12-2) simply turned to all those star-studded players they’ve recruited the past few years and turned them loose in the Superdome.

Freshmen Zamir “Zeus” White (running back), Warren Ericson (center) and Lewis Cine (safety), all got their first career starts, and freshman receiver George Pickens was the star of the game for the Bulldogs. With 12 catches for 175 yards and a touchdown, the 6-foot-4 wideout from Hoover, Ala., was named the bowl’s outstanding player after hauling in the most passes by a UGA receiver since Hines Ward also had 12 in the 1998 Outback Bowl and the most yards since Tavarres King had 188 against Kentucky in 2012.

White had a career-best 92 yards on 18 carries as star running back D’Andre Swift once again filled a decoy role. Defensively, freshman Travon Walker and redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari each had sacks, first-year transfer D.J. Daniel led the Bulldogs with eight tackles and Cine had six.

That made it feel more like the first game of the 2020 season than the last game of 2019. Though Smart didn’t entirely agree.

“I’d say it was 50-50 because of the seniors,” Smart said. “It meant so much to them because they wanted to be the winningest class at Georgia. For them it wasn’t 2020, but for a lot of others it was.”

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The 2019 Bulldogs became the fifth UGA team to win 12 games in a season and the seniors tied the 2005 team for most wins over a four-year span with 44. Baylor’s season ended at 11-3.

It wasn’t all newbies. Junior safety Richard LeCounte had two interceptions. And once again, it was the steady hand of junior quarterback Jake Fromm who kept it all together for the Bulldogs. After a big first half, he finished with 250 yards on 20-of-30 passing and two touchdowns.

Immediately afterward came the questions about whether he had played his last collegiate game. ESPN’s Todd McShay rates Fromm as the fourth best quarterback in the NFL Draft, if he chooses to enter.

Fromm wouldn’t say, and it probably will be a little while before he does.

“We’ll talk about that later,” Fromm said as he walked back to the Georgia locker room following the postgame news conference. “I want to celebrate this win with my teammates.”

Smart said he has already talked to Fromm and Swift extensively about their NFL decisions. He doesn’t expect Swift to take long to make up his mind. Fromm might linger a bit.

Underclassmen have to inform the NFL of their decisions by Jan. 17. UGA students resume classes Tuesday.

“I’ve heard things back-and-forth, and I’ve had a couple of meetings with him,” Smart said of Fromm. “He’s been great. He’s been getting information, gathering information. But I really don’t know. I’ve heard things both ways. But he’s earned the right to take the time to make the best decision.”

As for the timelines, Smart said: “I think we’ll hear something quick on Swift. I don’t think Jake will know when we start back to school on the seventh. I’m sure he’ll go to classes until he decides.”

Indeed, Swift, who had a single carry for two yards and tossed back a handoff to Fromm on a flea-flicker, said after the game he legitimately hasn’t made up his mind yet.

Asked what it would come down to, Smart said, “where I’m going to get drafted, how high, the injury. I’ve got a lot of things to think about.”

Swift said he’d do that over “the next couple of days.”

LeCounte also said he would wait to make a decision.

Georgia led 19-0 at halftime, a lead Baylor quickly bit into. The Bears flew down the field to open the third quarter, converting two third downs along the way to set up a first down at the 12. They got on the scoreboard with a pass to star receiver Denzel Mims, who beat UGA cornerback Eric Stokes on fade route, which was the first TD pass allowed by Stokes this season. The scoring drive took just 2:46 to cover 75 yards.

The game was won for Georgia on Baylor’s next possession. The Bears reached the Bulldogs’ 46 and faced fourth-and-4. After a timeout, coach Matt Rhule chose to go for it.

Bad idea.

Ojulari was able to penetrate Baylor’s pass protection and sacked quarterback Charlie Brewer, who fumbled. Freshman Travon Walker recovered at the Bears’ 47-yard line.

That was the 10:02 mark of the third quarter. Georgia faced a similar fourth-down situation minutes later. It appeared the Bulldogs were going to settle for a 36-yard field goal from Rodrigo Blankenship. Instead, holder Jake Camarda took the snap and ran six yards to the 13 for a first down.

On the next play, White went around right end for a touchdown and a 26-7 lead with 7:16 remaining in the third quarter.

It ended up being a very important score as the Bears would get on the board again in the third quarter. Helped by a couple of questionable calls — a roughing penalty on Malik Herring and an interference foul against Mark Webb — Baylor completed an eight-play, 75-yard drive with a rushing touchdown of less than a yard by Brewer. It was just the second rushing TD allowed by Georgia’s defense all season and made it 26-14 with 4:10 still remaining in the third quarter.

But the Bulldogs were able to keep the Bears out of the end zone the rest of the way. Baylor’s cause was not helped when Brewer was knocked out of the game on an out-of-bounds tackle midway through the fourth quarter. He finished with 211 yards on 24-of-41 passing. Jacob Zeno finished the game for the Bears.

Georgia believes it was no “fluke” victory.

“I think we had probably the best 2-1/2 weeks of practice we’ve had all year,” Fromm said. “I think guys were committed. Guys were focused, and we had a really good plan going in. It was an opportunity for a lot of guys to come out and kind of have their coming‑out party and a lot of guys played really well.”