Georgia Bulldogs hope spring football helps them heal

ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart and players who met with media members Tuesday acknowledged a pall hanging over the football program in the 58 days since the tragic events of Jan. 15. They also said that it is lifting, ever so slightly, as they returned to Woodruff Practice Fields to resume playing the game they love.

“Personally, I’d never experienced any kind of loss of anybody close to my age, much less a friend and somebody I saw every single day,” said Kendall Milton, a senior running back from Fresno, California. “Going through that was tough. After the season, it kind of took away all the light from the national championship and put all the focus on that situation. But that was most important in the moment, and it’s still most important.”

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Smart didn’t tiptoe around many difficult questions he fielded during a 20-minute Q&A with reporters in a team meeting room inside the Butts-Mehre football complex. Then again, other than submitting to a single, one-on-one interview with ESPN, the SEC’s billion-dollar business partner, Smart had been silent and out of public view during the two months that have passed since offensive lineman Devin Willock and UGA recruiting analyst Chandler LeCroy were killed in a high-speed, alcohol-related crash in an athletic department vehicle. The fatal accident occurred only hours after the Bulldogs held a parade and championship celebration at Sanford Stadium.

“We try to have education programs, (but) education is not enough,” said Smart, who is entering his eighth season at the helm of the Bulldogs’ football program. “You have to do a great job of making sure your players understand the risks and dangers that are out there with vehicles, especially nowadays; they go really fast. You’ve got to be extremely careful. We try to educate and make sure our players understand those risks.”

Police reported that LeCroy had been driving 104 mph shortly before the rented 2021 Ford Expedition left the roadway. Tory Bowles, another member of UGA’s full-time recruiting staff, is still recovering from serious injuries, including spinal and rib fractures. Georgia offensive lineman Warren McClendon, riding shotgun, survived with minor injuries.

Police said LeCroy was racing star defensive lineman Jalen Carter as a large group of people made their way to a local Waffle House. Several players were interviewed by police at the scene of the crash. Some, Smart said, have sought counseling, which UGA is providing.

“That’s a sad situation, and it still is, and shoot, we’re doing everything we can to honor Devin and Chandler,” said Ladd McConkey, a fourth-year junior receiver from Chatsworth. “To see something like that is never easy, it’s still not easy and we’re just trying to do everything we can to honor them and represent them the right way.”

“Do It For Dev” is the new slogan the team is using. Stickers with Willock’s No. 77 on them will be worn on their helmets throughout spring practice and into next season.

Ready or not, it’s time for the Bulldogs to return to the football field. The business of trying to become the first program in the modern era to win three consecutive championships commenced Tuesday afternoon when Georgia held the first of 15 practices that the NCAA allows FBS teams each spring. The session will be completed with the annual G-Day spring game April 15 at Sanford Stadium.

Football-wise, the Bulldogs have much to resolve between now and then. First and foremost, they must settle on a starting quarterback. Sixth-year senior Stetson Bennett finally graduated and moved on to the NFL. Three players will compete to take his place in fourth-year junior Carson Beck, third-year sophomore Brock Vandagriff and redshirt freshman Gunner Stockton.

Smart indicated that Beck and Vandagriff would split snaps with the No. 1 offense to start. Stockton, who drew notice for his guidance of the scout team last season, will rotate in and out.

“I do look forward to seeing Carson and Brock getting a lot of that action,” Smart said. “They’ll both rep with the 1s. As far as how much, that’ll play itself out over the course of spring.”

Overseeing that competition will be first-year offensive coordinator Mike Bobo. Bobo is, of course, a former Georgia player and longtime offensive coordinator under previous coach Mark Richt.

Bobo left the Bulldogs in 2015 to become head coach at Colorado State. He lasted five seasons before he was fired, then served short coordinator stints at South Carolina and Auburn. After he was dismissed from Auburn following the 2021 season, Bobo joined the Georgia staff as a lower-paid offensive analyst.

Smart said he had no reservations promoting his former Georgia teammate into the role of chief play-caller after Todd Monken left for an NFL job in February.

“I was very comfortable at that point that if we lost Todd … that I would go with Mike because I felt very comfortable with his leadership in the (meeting) room,” Smart said Tuesday. “And I asked Monken his opinion, what he thought, and I thought it was important to keep that dynamic in the room set. … I think Mike has grown a lot since he went out to Colorado State and the time he has spent here.”

The first half of Smart’s news conference Tuesday was spent answering questions about the fatal crash and the internal and external ramifications therein. At the 10-minute mark, Claude Felton, Georgia’s longtime sports communication director, piped in.

“We do have limited time here, so if you have any spring football questions, I suggest you get those in,” Felton said.

Having not provided any updates on the team since mid-January, there was indeed much business for Smart to address. Such as:

-The status of transfer receiver Rara Thomas, who recently had felony charges dropped in a domestic-violence case and had misdemeanor charges resolved via pretrial diversion.

“Rara’s been cleared with the recent changes in his deal to participate with the team. He still has some ongoing things with campus that has to be cleared, but he’s going to be free to be able to practice with us right now.”

-On Thomas and the two other transfers who joined the team, in Missouri wideout Dominic Lovett and Texas A&M defensive back Deyon “Smoke” Bouie.

“When you talk about Dom and Rara, they’re guys that have competed in (the SEC), they’ve caught a lot of passes in our league, they’ve been very productive in our league, and it was a position that we were losing several players at. We needed to be able to help our quarterbacks. Quarterbacks need some weapons to throw to, and those guys do that. And then with Deyon, he’s a guy that I’ve known a long time. Since ninth grade he’s been coming up here to camp. We’ve known a lot about him, and we’re looking forward to seeing him go compete in a secondary with a lot of open spots.”

-On whether Jamon Dumas-Johnson would be disciplined for the racing and reckless-driving charges he received from a separate incident in January.

“He still has a day in court for those charges, that are still charges right now. He has to handle that in court. Will he be disciplined? ‘Pop’ absolutely will be disciplined. Do I have to define what that discipline is right now? No, I don’t have to define what that discipline is. But I can assure you that the education piece is there and that the discipline is there.”

-On the competition to replace starters at both offensive tackle positions.

“Earnest (Greene’s) conditioning level (since October knee surgery) may not be exactly where we need it to be, but he’s been working out with the team, been doing offseason workouts with the team. He’s been able to do all the stuff he’s required to do. He’ll go out there and compete. Amarius Mims will go out there; (Austin) Blaske will be out there; Monroe Freeling will be out there, Chad Lindberg. We’ll have a lot of guys competing at tackle. We have a pretty high bar for what the standard is at offensive tackle at Georgia, and those two guys last year played really well. We’ll have good competition this year.”

-On players that will miss spring practice because of injuries.

“(Safety) Dan Jackson is still out (foot). (OLB) Marvin Jones had shoulder surgery. (OL signee) Josh Miller came in (after) a shoulder surgery. (RB) Andrew Paul is still out with an ACL and (LB) Jalon Walker is out with a shoulder surgery. So, we’ve got five guys who are out for the spring. Probably less than we’ve had in recent years.”

-On the dynamics of the quarterback competition between Carson Beck and Brock Vandagriff.

“I think those two guys would argue about who has the stronger arm. I don’t honestly know who has the stronger arm from what I’ve seen in the past. I think they both have to play in game action. I think they both have a really good pocket presence. Brock is a really good athlete. I think Brock has added about 14 or 15 pounds of muscle. He wanted to get back to 215 out of his 203, 204 playing range. And Carson has lost a little weight from 220, so they’re right at the same size. It’s hard to say the differences between those two.”

That’s just a small sample of the football topics tackled Tuesday. There will be plenty of time to dissect the 2023 squad between now and April 15.

The overarching discussion Tuesday remained the fatal crash and whether it exposed some “cultural issues” within the program.

That notion was vehemently denied.

“We’re staying on top of it,” McConkey said. “If you think about it, any 18- to 20-year-old kid, if you don’t make a mistake, it’s kind of silly to think that’s not going to happen. The main thing is, if something happens, you learn from it.”

Said senior defensive lineman Zion Logue: “The other day we were watching film and I saw my boy ‘Dev’ and it kind of hit me hard. But now we have to get back to football. It was a tragic event, and we all learned from it, and it’s just something very unfortunate.”

Said Smart: “It’s been a really tough go of it for (the players). I feel like they are starting to acknowledge and understand when you make mistakes, decisions that are costly can cost you your life. and that’s not to be taken lightly. I think our guys understand that. and we continue to educate them. and we’ll continue to do all we can as a university to make sure they behave and do that in a proper way.”