Georgia’s Derion Kendrick prepares to face former Clemson teammates

ATHENS – We haven’t heard from Derion Kendrick since he’s been at Georgia. We really haven’t heard from him since he was dismissed from Clemson in February.

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Odds are good we’ll hear from him Saturday night, one way or another.

Kendrick, an All-ACC cornerback for the Tigers last season, is expected to start for the Bulldogs against Clemson on Saturday in Charlotte. So, whether he’s available for interviews afterward, he’s going to have a say in the game.

A 6-foot-1, 190-pound senior from Rock Hill, S.C., Kendrick will play a major role in the Bulldogs’ attempt to defend the Tigers’ tall, talented receiving corps. He should be quite familiar with them, having had to defend most of those wideouts in Clemson’s practices the past two years.

Chief among those will be Justyn Ross, a 6-foot-4, 205-pound slot receiver who’s had 1,865 yards and 17 touchdowns in his career.

“Oh, yeah, it’s gonna be real fun,” Ross said. “That’s like one of my best friends. So, we’re going to go at it. My sophomore year, he was the person who used to guard me (in practice). We’ve been going at it for a minute.”

Kendrick did not leave Clemson without some controversy. He was dismissed by coach Dabo Swinney at the beginning of the Tigers’ spring practice in February for unexcused absences from practice. It was, apparently, a last-straw kind of thing.

Not long after Kendrick’s departure, he was arrested in March in his hometown for possession of marijuana and a gun. Those charges later were expunged.

The only public commentary from Kendrick in the months since all that happened came on an obscure Clemson podcast called “On Campus with JB and Sciggy.” Dutifully, they asked Kendrick what ultimately led to his departure.

“Family is going to come before anything,” said Kendrick, who is the father of two young children. “My son had some problems going on, so I was with him. I wasn’t really at school. It was during springtime, so I had a lot going on then.

“I was with him, wasn’t really doing work, couldn’t really do work because I was always in the hospital. I was going to the hospital, back and forth. On my part, I didn’t have too much communication. I was just like, ‘I’ve got to be there.’ So that’s where there was a little misunderstanding.”

That interview was in mid-May. Kendrick ended up enrolling at UGA on June 1.

Since then, he apparently has fit right in with the Bulldogs. As far as anybody knows, there have been no more incidents or absences.

Junior linebacker Nakobe Dean spoke glowingly about what he has seen and heard from Kendrick, who the Bulldogs refer to as “D.K.”

“What surprised me was the way he works,” said Dean, the de facto captain of Georgia’s defense. “He definitely got on it when he came in. Didn’t complain about anything, just came in and worked. He’s grateful for the opportunity to be here and everything like that. Basically, that made me look at him, like, ‘Yeah, he’s a guy who really wants to play, really loves the game, really has something to play for, the way he bought into the team culture and everything.”

From a purely football standpoint, Georgia desperately needed help in the secondary. The Bulldogs lost junior cornerbacks Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell to the NFL draft, then four other regulars to graduation or transfer.

Kendrick has since locked down one of the two corner positions. Senior Ameer Speed or freshman Kelee Ringo are expected to log most of the snaps on the other side of the field.

In the meantime, Clemson’s secondary was left somewhat depleted. The Tigers should be fine with Andrew Booth and Mario Goodrich slated to start. But they have only six corners overall, one of whom is a walk-on. Swinney said Tuesday that Fred Davis has been cleared to play. Davis was charged with reckless driving after striking a mail truck at 115 mph in late July.

Transfers facing their old team is nothing new. Georgia famously had to face former quarterbacks in Zach Mettenberger after he landed at LSU and Nick Marshall after he ended up at Auburn. Both made major impacts at their respective schools.

Defensive back Maurice “Mo” Smith never had to face his former Alabama team after following Smart to Georgia in 2016. He easily was the Bulldogs’ best defensive back that season, however.

Kendrick was good enough at Clemson to play 39 games, making 23 starts. All of his starts came after moving from wideout to cornerback as a sophomore. He had 51 tackles and two interceptions in 2019. Last year, he had 20 tackles in 12 games, an interception and a punt return of 66 yards for a touchdown. He also had a “pick-6” against FSU as a sophomore in 2019.

The last we saw of Kendrick was against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinals. He didn’t have a particularly good day, getting beat for two long Justin Fields passes, including one for a touchdown.

But he has immediately distinguished himself as one of the best in the Bulldogs’ defensive backfield, and they’ll need him to be Saturday.

Georgia quarterback JT Daniels said he has consulted Kendrick “about certain things that Clemson does. But coaches on both sides downplay any useful intel Kendrick might be able to provide.

“At the end of the day, once it gets going, it’s not going to be about what information he was able to pass on,” Clemson offensive coordinator Tony Elliott said. “It’s going to be about the one-on-one matchups. Obviously, he knows our guys; we know him. So, it’s gonna be that cat-and-mouse, that battle, to see who can play the most disciplined football on those one-on-one matchups.”

Just as important is going to be Kendrick’s emotional state for this game. It’s something the Bulldogs are addressing with him

“We’ve spoken to him about it, and we continue to,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said Monday. “The hurdle is more of the emotional side in playing your former teammates and old family. It can be ... tough on you at times. He’s got to be able to separate himself from that, lock it out and go perform.”

Clemson’s Swinney insists there is no bad blood coming from their side. He said the Tigers wish Kendrick well in every game but the one Saturday night.

“I hate we’ve got to play him because he’s a great player, but I’m happy that he’s at a good place where he can finish up the right way,” Swinney said on a Rivals.com podcast last week. “Hopefully, he’s grown through the process and can be the best version of himself this year. He’s a baller, there’s no doubt about that.”