Georgia Bulldogs faring better than most against COVID-19

Kirby Smart’s biggest concern three weeks from Georgia’s season opener at Arkansas is not who is going to start at quarterback. It’s whether COVID-19 is going to leave the Bulldogs with enough players to play.

To be clear, Georgia has plenty of players to work with at present. By all accounts, the Bulldogs are making out better than a lot of SEC teams when it comes to the battle against the spread of coronavirus and COVID-19, the deadly disease it can cause.

Tennessee had to cancel its scrimmage this weekend because 44 players were out either because of exposure or for a quarantine. Likewise, Auburn coach Gus Malzahn said 16 players missed practice because of the presence of the virus.

Conversely, Georgia was able to conduct a 140-play scrimmage Saturday.

“A lot of our peers across the league are struggling to be able have enough depth to get that number of plays,” Smart said. “Some may only have 1s; some may only have 1s and 2s. We have 1s, 2s and some 3s.”

That’s not to say Georgia hasn’t been affected. Smart did not say how many players have had to sit out practices lately because of exposures but acknowledged that some have. That included Saturday’s scrimmage.

“We’ve gone up,” he said. “We had more last week than we had the previous two weeks. So, it’s a concern across the board.”

That means that the Bulldogs would have had players miss the first game had the 2020 season started when originally scheduled. Georgia was to open the season against Virginia in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Monday night. Instead, the Bulldogs were conducting their 14th of 25 preseason practices in advance of what is now a Sept. 26 opener on the road against Arkansas.

UGA Athletics has not shared its coronavirus data despite fielding numerous Freedom of Information Act requests to do so. Georgia was one of 11 SEC schools that declined ESPN’s request last week to share the number of tests it has conducted and the number of positive results that it has processed. The athletic association also has ignored The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s requests for the data.

Florida, Kentucky and Missouri did respond to ESPN’s requests, however, and reported 35, 11 and 40 confirmed cases, respectively.

Meanwhile, the University of Georgia reports that it is coming off its worst week of the year on campus. UGA reported 821 positive COVID-19 tests from Aug. 24-30, up from 189 the previous week. Students -- which would include any UGA athletes -- accounted for 798 positive tests in the most recent testing cycle.

That prompted UGA President Jere Morehead to send out a message to students last week. He urged them to “resist the temptation to organize or attend a large social gathering” over the Labor Day weekend.

But, so far at least, the virus does not appear to have significantly penetrated the Bulldogs’ bubble. Most players are taking their classes digitally this semester. Georgia’s administration continues to hammer home the importance of masks and social distancing.

That has left Smart with little comfort, however.

“I don’t know exactly why we’ve been a little less than others, but that could prove to be unfortunate later on in the season if we have more of an outbreak,” Smart said. “I think Ron (Courson, sports-medicine director) and his staff do a tremendous job, but I don’t think there’s anything we’re doing somebody else is not. … A lot of our kids are in online classes or in synchronized online classes, and some aren’t. Some are in actually sitting classes.”

Georgia players have developed an in-house system in which they are holding each other accountable. Mainly, that consists of not going downtown to bars or out to parties where large groups of people they don’t know are gathering.

“When it comes to the bubble and staying out of the way, I wouldn’t say it’s that difficult,” junior place-kicker Jake Camarda said. “I’m speaking for a lot of guys on this team when I say that we look at this season as a big opportunity, and that’s something we don’t want to take any risks for on the outside world. So, I think people are just trying to keep their circles small, you know, so they’re not running into so many people.”

Said senior outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson: “If they say that we can’t be out partying, we can’t be out in a bunch of crowds, then that’s what it is. I think a lot of guys on the team are being really good and professional about that because we all want to play.”