ATHENS — It wasn’t quite the frenzied scene of a year ago, but there were still plenty of NFL coaches and scouts in town and lots of good-looking pro prospects for them to examine as the two-time defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs conducted their annual UGA Pro Day on Wednesday at the Payne Indoor Athletic Center.
All 32 NFL teams sent representatives, according to Georgia Sports Communications, and head coaches were present from the Falcons (Arthur Smith) and Pittsburgh Steelers (Mike Tomlin). There were no Bill Belichick sightings, as typically is the case, but the sidelines and end lines around the field were crowded with NFL brass.
“Excited for these kids,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said toward the end of the nearly five-hour proceeding. “It doesn’t seem like we have as large a group as we had last year in just sheer numbers. But some great kids, some guys that worked really hard for this day and a couple guys getting to work out today that didn’t get to work out at the combine. That’s really what the Pro Day is about.”
Georgia had an NFL-record 15 players taken in last year’s draft. It’s unclear how many Bulldogs might go this year. It likely will be less, though still more than most teams, and several of the players are receiving first-round grades.
In all, 14 players from Georgia’s 2022 national championship team and five former Bulldogs were weighed, measured, tested and paced through on-field skill drills.
Two Bulldogs in particular seemed to garner the most attention. They were quarterback Stetson Bennett and defensive lineman Jalen Carter.
Carter, a 6-foot-3, 323-pound defensive lineman, once was projected as a possible No. 1 overall pick. But that was before he was implicated in the double-fatality car crash that took the lives of Georgia offensive lineman Devin Willock and recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy. Carter is awaiting a court date on charges of racing and reckless driving after his arrest on the eve of the NFL combine last month in Indianapolis.
Projections now have Carter going later in the first round. That, of course, has brought many other teams into the equation. The Falcons, currently set to pick at No. 8, reportedly are not interested.
Carter declined interview requests after his on-field workout, which left him on the ground fighting to catch his breath and drawing the attention of trainers.
“There’s been a lot of questions about Jalen, which probably was inevitable anyway,” Smart said. “I got a lot of questions about (2022 No. 1 pick) Travon Walker, too, when he came out. There’s a lot of questions generally, but with the situation, probably more questions and more direct. You just try to be honest and talk about the experiences we had with Jalen here.”
Smart reiterated that he believes Carter is “a generational talent” as a defensive tackle. “I’ve been in coaching for 18 years, and there’s very few players I’ve been around that has the talent he has,” he said.
Bennett went through what seemed like an exhaustive passing demonstration. Utilizing current Georgia receivers Dillon Bell, Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint, Arian Smith and Luke Bennett, as well former Bulldog Matt Landers and UGA draft prospects Darnell Washington and Kenny McIntosh, Bennett said he attempted a total of 55 passes during the half-hour exercise. His passes were thrown to every conceivable depth and breadth on the field.
Most of them were on target, but a few of them were not.
“I thought it went all right; missed a few,” Bennett said afterward. “We ran good routes, everybody caught it well, so I thought I went pretty good.”
Bennett, who also threw at the combine, connected on some deep out-routes, which teams were eager to see. He generally displayed good velocity, which was shown to be elite at the combine. But Bennett seemed to struggle some with throws to the right side of the field, coming up short on two deep balls down and missing McIntosh on a wheel route to that sideline. Landers dropped one perfectly thrown deep pass in the end zone, and McIntosh dropped the final throw of the session on a fade route in the right corner.
“I’m mad I dropped that last one because that was my last one with him,” McIntosh said with a laugh. “But I definitely enjoyed. And Stet was great; he was throwing that thing on a dime, on the money, every time. I’m proud of him.”
Bennett’s projections have swung wildly back and forth on draft boards. Shortly after leading Georgia to its second consecutive national championship with his fifth consecutive postseason MVP performance, even acclaimed draft experts such as Mel Kiper thought Bennett might get an early-round call. Such lofty predictions subsided after Bennett’s late-January arrest for public intoxication in Dallas. That development saw some boards drop him to free-agent status.
Even after meeting with several teams since the combine, Bennett said he has no idea either. But he insists he’s not sweating it.
“I try not to read too much into it,” said Bennett, who became Georgia’s record-holder for career completion percentage. “All it takes is one (team). I just try to go out and do what I did on tape. I always thought I had a strong arm, accurate, can move. So I really just wanted to go out and do what we did every day in practice and be consistent.”
One Georgia player who absolutely has improved his stock is senior outside linebacker Nolan Smith. After clocking a blistering 4.39-second 40-yard dash at the combine and blowing away other measurable drills, he did only field work Wednesday. And now, Smith feels like he has proved he is deserving of a first-round selection.
“I wanted to show that I’m explosive, that I can run, bend, can set the edge, that I’m probably the most athletic linebacker they’ve seen in a long time, that I can be just like Von Miller,” Smith said. “It’s written in stone now.”
If Smith does somehow move into the first round, the Bulldogs could match their incredible showing in the 2022 draft, when they had five first-rounders. Carter, offensive tackle Broderick Jones, tight end Darnell Washington and cornerback Kelee Ringo have each garnered first-round grades from various scouting services.
None of them were thought to do anything to devalue themselves Wednesday, as they were able to work out in the familiar confines of the indoor practice building they call the “House of Payne.”
“Way better, way more comfortable being here,” said McIntosh, who said he improved on the 4.62 40 time he recorded in Indianapolis. “It was real loud in Indy at the combine. Being here in front of my guys and hearing their voices brought comfort to me.”
For the individual players, the real proof of their efforts will come during the draft in late April. For Georgia, though, just the NFL presence and spectacle Wednesday represented a win.
“The recruiting pitch will come on draft day, when we actually see what happens,” Smart said. “Today was a great day for our guys to come work out, but all their hard work gets paid off on draft day.”
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