As camps go, Georgia’s couldn’t have gone much worse

ATHENS – Maybe preseason practices could have gone worse for the Georgia Bulldogs. After all, quarterback JT Daniels was still standing upright, at last check. But considering the objectives with which they started preseason camp, there’s not much more that could have gone wrong for the Bulldogs in the two weeks hence.

No. 1 on that list, for example, would have been finding a replacement for star receiver George Pickens, lost in spring to a season-ending knee injury. The Bulldogs seemed to have knocked that one out of the park with the summer acquisition of Arik Gilbert via the transfer portal, but Gilbert is not practicing with the team.

The next highest priority most certainly was settling on a starting five for a revamped offensive line. Primarily, there was uncertainty at left tackle and center. The Bulldogs lost starting center Warren Ericson to a broken (snapping) hand in the second practice. Left tackle Jamaree Salyer has been among those filling in.

Equally as important was rebuilding a secondary that lost four starters to the NFL and two other regulars to graduation or transfer. That quickly was mitigated, though, by adding West Virginia’s Tykee Smith and Clemson’s Derion Kendrick via the transfer portal. Georgia lost Smith, a projected starter at the “star” position, to a foot injury Tuesday.

Those are just the main hits. The Bulldogs also lost an assistant coach before camp even started, and have had offensive captain Kearis Jackson sidelined throughout after he underwent an arthroscopic knee procedure over the summer.

On Tuesday, 6-foot-7, 265-pound sophomore tight end Darnell Washington – one of the highlights of preseason camp -- went down with a foot injury that is going to keep him out of the first game, if not longer.

“We’re beat up a little bit with some injuries,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said last weekend. “We don’t have all our guys out there. We’ve got a lot of guys injured all around. But I think this time of year everybody does.”

Well, not everybody.

To say there has been less drama in the Clemson camp would be an understatement. It has been a relative cricket chirp over on the other side of Lake Hartwell.

“There have been some preseason injuries, but there hasn’t been that kind of, ‘Whoa, this is a big deal’ injury or development that seems like they’ve been having at Georgia every week,” said Larry Williams, who covers Clemson for TigerIllustrated.com. “The Arik Gilbert development seemed like a pretty big deal. Then we heard one of their transfer DBs that was going to help them shore up is hurt. Then you hear about the other really good tight end (Washington) getting hurt as well. And that’s on top of all the other guys that were already out.

“I mean, Clemson has some questions at receiver and has had some injuries there. But there hasn’t been anything over here where, you’re like, ‘Who’s going to be that guy now?’”

While all that sounds ominous for the Bulldogs, it might not be as bad as it seems. For instance, word is Gilbert could rejoin the team before the opener. While receivers Jackson and Jermaine Burton haven’t gotten a lot of action in camp, they probably needed the work least of all. The same goes for junior John FitzPatrick, who missed Saturday’s scrimmage with a sprained foot, but is the best-versed and most-experienced tight end on the roster.

Meanwhile, some young pups have turned heads with their unusually heavy work in camp. Freshman tight end Brock Bowers has drawn praise from offensive coordinator Todd Monken for an uncanny range of versatility and playmaking ability. A healthy Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint has been solid at the X receiver. So has freshman Adonai Mitchell, who wowed one and all with a 105-yard, one-touchdown performance in the G-Day game. And nobody who steps on the field at Bank of America Stadium on Sept. 4 is going to be faster than wideout Arian Smith, who competed in the NCAA Championships with the Georgia track team.

On Thursday night, Smart included on his list of players to be interviewed by media members one Sedrick Van Pran. That would seem to hint that Van Pran, the No. 1 center recruit in the country when he signed with Georgia in 2020, potentially has won that job. Meanwhile, Ericson has been practicing at guard and possibly could play that position in the opener. Also, left tackle Xavier Truss, right guard Tate Ratledge and right tackle Warren McClendon reportedly all have had strong preseasons.

As for the defensive backfield, missing Smith no doubt is a blow. But the junior from Philadelphia reportedly was having difficulty unseating senior Latavious Brini, who starred for the Bulldogs in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last season. Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick has lived up to his reputation at cornerback, and senior Ameer Speed has far exceeded his at the other corner. Safeties Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith have stood out throughout.

Clemson has had some setbacks as well. Star flanker Justyn Ross, who was cleared early in camp from a back injury that sidelined him last season, almost immediately was quarantined and then had to go through the COVID-19 re-acclimation protocol. Fellow wideout Joseph Ngata suffered a hamstring injury and has been shut down most of camp. So there are names on Clemson’s injury list, the list just isn’t as long.

Also, the Tigers’ preseason worksheet looked remarkably similar to Georgia’s in terms of weaknesses that needed to be addressed. The interior offensive line is a work in progress and a major concern facing Georgia’s stout defensive front in Game 1. And the Tigers’ secondary is having to retool, just as the Bulldogs’ is.

“I think they probably feel pretty good about the way things have developed,” Williams said of the Tigers. “And this defense is going to be pretty nasty, I believe. Their defensive line should make everybody behind them better. They’re pretty talented on the second- and third-levels, too. I’ve been telling people for months to take the ‘under’ in this game.”

The “under” is, of course, the low end of a total, combined final score. Georgia, too, will bring an elite defensive front into the opener.

That is provided, of course, everybody stays healthy. That has been a bit of a challenge for the Bulldogs so far.