There will be a bit of an NFL feel to Georgia’s camp this week.
The Bulldogs will conclude the “camp” portion of preseason practices this week, and they’ll have to make some difficult choices as they do. Because the Bulldogs are opening the season with a conference game against Vanderbilt, they will be able to only dress out 70 players.
Typically, Georgia opens at home against non-conference opponents. That means there is no limit to the number of players the Bulldogs can suit up for the games. And even when they’ve ventured out on the road or participated in “kickoff classic” contests, such as the Chick-fil-A event that’s played annually in Mercedes-Benz Stadium, there is no dress-out limit. Usually Georgia dresses out around 100, including walkons. NCAA rules allow 85 scholarship players per team.
Facing Vanderbilt on Aug. 31 in Nashville, the Bulldogs know only 70 -- the SEC-mandated maximum -- will be able to participate. That may not seem a big deal in a game that allows only 11 players at a time on the field. But tell that to the 30 or so who are left behind to watch on television just like everybody else.
“It’s always tough,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “It’s tough at 80, it’s tough at 85, it’s tough when you travel 100. Because whoever is the 101st, 71st, 86th, it’s tough. It’s going to be even tougher (for Vandy).”
The Bulldogs’ situation is particularly complicated this season for a couple of reasons: One, they had a lot of turnover at some key positions; and, two, there are a number of high-caliber, first-year freshmen that may eventually be ready to play but might not be just yet.
That’s especially relevant at wide receiver and in the defense backfield. Georgia has been thrilled with the potential shown by of a number of young players who have yet play a college game. But are they mentally ready for all the on-the-fly decisions and reactions they’ll be counted on to make during the heat of a prime-time, televised contest?
It’s fairly easy to settle on the first 50, which will comprise the first- and second-teamers on offense and defense, plus the kicking specialists. But the last 20 is more complicated. Position coaches will make arguments for certain players in meetings this week with Smart.
Smart encourages his players is try to enhance their “value” to the team. The more versatile a player is and the more areas he can contribute in, the more value he has. Inclusion on special-teams units dramatically increases a player’s worth, in that regard.
Smart used the running back room illustrate.
“We don’t know how many backs will travel,” he said. “So, if we have seven backs who are really good, we’ll travel seven; if we’ve got 10, we’ll travel 10; if they can help on special teams, they’ll be out there. We’ve traveled as few as four, as many as seven. (Junior walkon) Prather (Hudson) makes that number vary because he’s a really good special teams player. So those decisions we’ve got to make are going to be tough.”
Georgia has five scholarship backs, including the latest arrival in freshman Kenny McIntosh. McIntosh has been turning heads in camp with impressive, physical play. But does he get a nod over Hudson, a fourth-year junior who was named newcomer of the year on special teams in 2017 and has played in all 29 of the Bulldogs’ games the last two seasons?
“His value right now is going to be special teams, initially,” Smart said of McIntosh. “He earns more value by how he plays on those teams, and I think it’s new for him. He’s going through the ‘Holyfield Effect,’ and the ‘Swift effect,’ [which is’ can I help on these teams, and how do I do it, because I didn’t do it in high school? I don’t know how to block somebody on punt, I don’t know how to cover a kick. But as you train those guys, by Game 5 they’re better than the guy that may have done it his whole life."
On the other side of the coin is depth. Because of its impressive recruiting the last four years, Georgia has a lot of players who deserve to play. The Bulldogs are hoping to take advantage of that, especially on the defensive side of the ball.
Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning made it clear at the outset of preseason camp that he plans to play a lot of players on defense. His philosophy, and by extension that of Smart, is to have numerous players fill varied, specialized roles. The Bulldogs will employ “run-stuffers” and “edge-setters” and “designated pass-rushers” while also trying to keep fresh players on the field.
“I don't want to play 11, and we won't,” Lanning said. “You want to make sure you put your guys in the best position to be successful and some guys do some things better than other guys. So, within that, we obviously have packages that match that. They need to become experts at their position and, then, obviously, after that it goes to, how many positions can you execute. If you're able to play multiple positions, now your value just went up for the team and what you can do for the defense. … We’re going to play a lot of guys.”
The toughest decisions loom at wide receiver and in the defensive backfield. The Bulldogs have 10 scholarship wideouts and several capable walkons, such as junior Willie Erdman. There are 15 DBs for a secondary that at times has six players on the field.
First-year players such as cornerbacks D.J. Daniel and Tyrique Stevenson and safety D.J. Daniel have to show a lot of ability to be able overtake lettermen who may not have played a lot but have a better grip of the system.
Meanwhile, six talented young players are vying for playing time at outside linebacker, where rarely are there more than one or two on the field for any single play.
“The expectation is to find the guys that can go in there, put themselves in position to go play and then take advantage of those opportunities,” Smart said. “We’ll play as many as we can.”
Generally, only 50 or so players see action in a competitive SEC contest. Not many are expecting Georgia’s opener to be very competitive. The No. 3-ranked Bulldogs have been staked as three-touchdown favorites by most Las Vegas betting houses.
But Smart and his staff certainly aren’t thinking that way. They’re having to go over the worst-case scenario for each position and deciding who would be the best replacement in an emergency.
Then they’ll do it all over again in a few weeks.
“We know what we decide is not final,” Smart said. “It changes week to week. There’s not a week, I think, that our roster was exactly the same last year, number one, because of injuries, number two, because of effort in practice. … We’re going to have some tough decisions to make. (But) we’re not going to make them right now.”