ATHENS — No one could blame Javon Bullard if he were walking around with a little more swagger these days.
A rising junior and returning starter for the two-time, defending national champion Georgia Bulldogs, Bullard was named defensive MVP in the College Football Playoff semifinal win against Ohio State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl last season and for his performance in the 65-7 win over TCU in the national championship game. Since then, his hometown of Milledgeville pronounced March 11 Javon Bullard Day, gave him a key to the city and threw him a parade.
That’s heady stuff for a 3-star recruiting prospect who hadn’t started a college game before last season. Yet, Bullard insists that he hasn’t changed much.
“I’m still the same person,” said Bullard, a 5-foot-11, 180-pound defensive back. “I’m still eating off the floor. Coach (Kirby) Smart preaches that, that nobody has entitlement to anything. So, I’ve still got the same mindset I had last year, staying hungry and not being complacent. Complacency’s just not in my DNA.”
No, but hitting hard and making big plays apparently is. Bullard made some of the biggest defensive plays of the postseason for the Bulldogs. That included three tackles, a sack and jarring break-up of a pass for Ohio State’s Marvin Harrison Jr. in the Peach Bowl and two interceptions and a fumble recovery in the first half of the title game against TCU.
The thinking is that Georgia has a true star returning in 2023 at its “star” position, as the fifth defensive back spot is known. But there’s no guarantee that is where Bullard will line up next season.
Bullard splits time at the position with fifth-year senior Tykee Smith, who is an accomplished defensive back in his own right. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are having to decide on starters at two other spots in the secondary as cornerback Kelee Ringo and safety Christopher Smith move on to the NFL.
Bullard worked at star with the No. 1 unit in the Bulldogs’ first two practices, but he’s also getting looks at corner and safety as well. Don’t count him out to play somewhere other than star.
“Springs is always the time all the DBs kind of rotate,” Bullard said after Georgia’s second spring practice ended Thursday night. “We just feel like the more you know, the more value you have to this team. So, we all get looks at different positions, safety, corner, star, whatever it takes to help us.”
Georgia also enlisted some other help in the form of Texas A&M transfer Deyon “Smoke” Bouie. A former 5-star prospect, Bouie chose the Aggies over Georgia out of Bainbridge High School, which came as a disappointment to Bainbridge alum Kirby Smart.
“He’s a guy that I’ve known a long time,” Smart said. “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.”
Color Bullard impressed.
“A very handsy player,” Bullard said of Bouie. “I love watching him play. Gets his hands on receivers, very physical at the point of attack, very quick and agile. He moves well. I think he’s going to be a great fit for our team.”
Bouie is one of three transfers to join Georgia’s roster this season. The other two are receivers Dominic Lovett (Missouri) and Rara Thomas (Mississippi State). Both players led their respective teams in receiving.
Their presence has made for an interesting transition for both sides as Bullard and the Bulldogs’ other defenders had to prepare for those players when Georgia played their teams last season. That has made for some pretty good battles – and smack-talk – on Woodruff Practice Fields.
“Dom is like my little brother,” Bullard said with a laugh. “He was one of the first guys when we came back (from winter break), we just started talking it up. Very quick, very fast, very agile, gets in and out of his breaks real good. Great route-runner. Knows how to play with his feet a lot. So, I’m looking forward to seeing him play.
“I haven’t really gotten to play Rara because he’s more sort of outside. But I know Kamari (Lassiter) has gone against him a lot and, from what he’s saying, he’s very quick off his first step and has great hands. So, I’m excited to see both of those guys play.”
The Bulldogs are especially excited to have Bullard back. After logging 58 tackles, 3.5 sacks and seven quarterback pressures his first two seasons, Bullard suddenly finds himself in a leadership role, not to mention a starring one.
He gets recognized around town these days, especially back home in Milledgeville. But, again, Bullard vows to keep it in perspective.
“Like we say in our (meeting) room, wearing this ‘G’ is darn near as important as your last name,” Bullard said. “This ‘G’ is very important; people love and respect it. It’s an honor to wear it, on the field or off the field. You don’t want to bring a bad name to the ‘G’ or to yourself. That’s why you have to watch what you do, watch your surroundings and keep your head looking forward.”
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Credit: HYOSUB SHIN / AJC