5 things to know before Georgia-UAB

Georgia is expecting a capacity crowd of 92,746 for Saturday's home opener against UAB at Sanford Stadium.

Credit: None � 2017 Cox Media Group.

Credit: None � 2017 Cox Media Group.

Georgia is expecting a capacity crowd of 92,746 for Saturday's home opener against UAB at Sanford Stadium.

ATHENS – In the words of UGA’s legendary public-address announcer Brook Whitmire, “it’s time to tee it up betweeeeeeen the hedges!”

For the first time, since Nov. 23, 2019, Sanford Stadium will play host to a full-capacity crowd with tailgating all over campus as Alabama-Birmingham comes to town Saturday as No. 2 Georgia’s guest in its home opener (3:30 p.m., ESPN2).

Like all SEC football venues last year, Georgia limited attendance to a socially distanced 20 percent of capacity, or about 20,000 per game. Masks also were required for entry as precautionary measure amid the coronavirus pandemic.

Thanks to the development of a vaccine, there are no such restrictions this season. Georgia is expecting a capacity crowed of 92,746 and masks -- while recommended for enclosed areas -- won’t be required to attend Saturday’s game.

“Protecting the health and safety of our student-athletes, fans, staff and visitors is a top priority for UGA Athletics,” Athletic Director Josh Brooks told the AJC. “Our practices, protocols and procedures for all home games are consistent with most SEC and ACC institutions. We work closely with the SEC medical task force, health-care professionals and health-care organizations on all best practices and guidelines.”

UGA actually is the last of the state’s major sports entities to press on under the current conditions. The Braves and Atlanta United have been hosting mask-less crowds all summer. Georgia Tech and Georgia State have this season too. And, of course, the Bulldogs’ recorded their 10-3 win over Clemson on Saturday before a mask-less crowd of 74,187 at Bank of America Stadium.

Of course, fans are welcomed to mask up. In fact, UGA continues to encourage the use of masks, vaccinations and surveillance testing. And Sanford Stadium will continue to implement other safeguards, including contactless concession stands, pedestal scanners, sanitizing stations and one-way ingresses and egresses.

“We will continue to evaluate every aspect of our approach and mitigation efforts for (Sanford Stadium) in accordance with all applicable regulations, while also considering best practices from our peer institutions and professional sports organizations,” Brooks said.

Here and five things to consider about Saturday’s home opener:

Kirby Smart backtracks

Two days after stating that he was “as concerned as I’ve ever been” due to “our highest spike” of COVID-19 infections within the football program, Georgia coach Kirby Smart was backtracking Wednesday.

“We’ve had the highest amount we’ve had since the beginning of fall camp, and that is a spike,” Smart said on the SEC coaches teleconference. “But that’s staff and players combined. The total number is not over five; but that is staff and players. I think that got blown way, way out of proportion.”

According to that clarification, Georgia football has a total of five individuals in COVID-19 protocol. The only confirmation is director of sports medicine Ron Courson. Courson has been out since Sept. 1 when he tested positive after exhibiting symptoms. He did not accompany the Bulldogs to Charlotte for the Duke’s Mayo Classic.

Courson is among “more than 90 percent” of the football program who has been vaccinated, according to Smart. Courson’s status for this Saturday is unknown.

QB mystery

Quarterback JT Daniels may or may not play Saturday. He may or may not have practiced Tuesday. He did practice Wednesday, according to offensive mates Warren McClendon and Ladd McConkey. They were interviewed shortly after that day’s workout and said that Daniels shared first-team snaps with redshirt freshman Carson Beck.

That is not unusual. The backup quarterback, which Beck has been identified as, typically gets reps with the No. 1 offense every week. It’s a preemptive strategy in case the starting quarterback goes down in a game.

Meanwhile, there are unconfirmed reports that Daniels is dealing with an upper-body injury. The fan site Dawgs247.com cited sources saying that it is a strained oblique muscle, which runs down the side of the torso. However, Smart never mentioned it when asked about injuries during his media appearances the first three days of the week.

If the Bulldogs go with Beck, the 6-foot-4, 215-pound redshirt freshman will become Georgia’s fifth starting quarterback in the past 13 games. Beck has never started and has appeared in only one game. He came in at the end of Georgia’s 49-7 win over Missouri in December and did not attempt a pass.

The Blazers

Meanwhile, Smart has been shouting from the mountaintops that the UAB Blazers absolutely are not to be taken lightly. And by all accounts, the Blazers (1-0) are a mini-force to be reckoned with. They’re a stout defensive team that has been ranked in the top 10 in that category in each of the past three seasons. They allowed more than 200 yards passing once in nine games last season. Coach Bill Clark’s offense has a veteran quarterback in Tyler Johnston, who knows how to check them out of bad plays and likes to throw the long ball.

“People don’t understand, these guys are in a one-score game late with Miami,” Smart said. “You know what they did to Georgia a long time ago; they played them really tight. They do a tremendous job.”

The Blazers trailed Miami 17-14 into the final four minutes of the third quarter before the Hurricanes pulled away for a 31-14 win last year. In 2003, UAB went into the fourth quarter tied 13-13 with a Georgia team that would play in the SEC Championship game. Billy Bennett’s field goal staked the Bulldogs to a 16-13 win.

Calling all wideouts

A big question for the Bulldogs is whether they will get back any of their firepower at receiver this week. Already without George Pickens (knee) and Arik Gilbert (personal) last week, starting slotback Kearis Jackson (knee) was limited only to punt returns while recovering from an offseason arthroscopy. Smart said Dominick Blaylock, who previously started ahead of Jackson, is medically cleared to play, but apparently isn’t mentally ready to go.

Star flanker Jermaine Burton had only two catches for 11 yards on three targets vs. Clemson. He has missed 35 of Georgia’s past 45 practices with a variety of injuries. Meanwhile, tight ends Darnell Washington and John FitzPatrick are still rehabbing foot injuries.

As a result, freshman tight end Brock Bowers started and led the Bulldogs with six catches for 43 yards, and redshirt freshman Ladd McConkey got his first career start in the slot.

Defensive encore

It would be hard to think of Georgia’s defense playing any more effectively than it did last week. Facing a Clemson offense that had gained 400 or more yards in the previous 12 games, the Bulldogs held them to 180 yards and three points on 60 plays. Six different players sacked Clemson quarterback D.J. Uiagalelei seven times, and safety Christopher Smith had a 74-yard interception return for a touchdown.

Linebacker Channing Tindall said a focus for the defense this week was to “get the ball out” and create more turnovers.