Long-avoided ‘opt-outs’ coming for No. 8 Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia inside linebacker Monty Rice (32) during a game against Auburn on Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium in Athens on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Rice is one of several Georgia seniors who have elected to opt-out for a bowl game this year. (Photo by Tony Walsh)
Georgia inside linebacker Monty Rice (32) during a game against Auburn on Dooley Field at Sanford Stadium in Athens on Saturday, Oct. 3, 2020. Rice is one of several Georgia seniors who have elected to opt-out for a bowl game this year. (Photo by Tony Walsh)

Credit: Tony Walsh

Credit: Tony Walsh

ATHENS – The “opt-outs” Georgia has avoided all season are starting come its way. At least five seniors have informed coach Kirby Smart they do not intend to hang around for a bowl game, and that number likely will grow before the Bulldogs resume practice next week, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution has learned.

Linebacker and defensive captain Monty Rice, offensive guard Ben Cleveland, safety Richard LeCounte, cornerback D.J. Daniel and tight end Tre’ McKitty are skipping out on Georgia’s expected New Year’s Day bowl to begin preparations for the 2021 NFL draft. Other seniors and several draft-eligible underclassmen are expected to join their ranks in the coming days.

Smart began meeting individually with Georgia players Wednesday to discuss their plans after this season. Fall semester exams concluded Thursday. The Bulldogs’ final regular-season game against Vanderbilt was canceled Monday and efforts to find a replacement opponent ceased Wednesday morning.

Smart remained hopeful that most of the seniors would stick it out through the New Year’s bowl to compete in another top-10 matchup and tie the 2005 and 2019 classes for the most total wins (44) by a group of seniors. The current seniors are 43-9. Georgia’s most decorated group was the 1983 class, which went 43-4-1 and won the 1980 national championship and three SEC titles (1980-82). Last year’s seniors were 44-12 record with one SEC championship and a national championship game appearance.

“I think it’s important for them that they finish off with a really good bowl game and a chance to finish top 10, maybe higher,” Smart said of the seniors this week. “A chance to go to a New Year’s Six bowl four consecutive years, a chance to tie or break the winning record of any senior class to play at Georgia, there’s a lot there left to play for.”

But not as much as the Bulldogs had hoped. Unless there are a rash of upsets in this weekend’s conference championship games, No. 8 Georgia (7-2) has no shot of reaching the College Football Playoff. And after all they’ve been through this season, the opportunity to play in a New Year’s Six bowl that will include limited extracurricular activities and a shorter time span is not worth it for a lot players, especially those with their degree requirements completed and realistic NFL opportunities at hand.

That’s the case for at least half of the Bulldogs’ 23 seniors. And that does not include a number of draft-eligible underclassmen as well. Smart was hoping to address that with third-year sophomores and third- and fourth-year juniors this week as well.

“It’s so hard to predict your roster for the next year and your needs not knowing who’s going to be here and who’s not,” Smart said. “That’s the hardest thing for me.”

All five players who opted out Friday have accepted invitations to the Senior Bowl, which is a showcase game for seniors who are expected to be drafted. Rice is a finalist for the 2020 Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. Cleveland and LeCounte are All-SEC players. McKitty is a graduate transfer from FSU who started five games this season. Daniel is a part-time starter who battled injuries this season.

It’s hard to blame some of Georgia’s veterans for wanting to move on. Dating to this summer, four times they saw their game schedule changed, including once the day before they were supposed to play Vanderbilt the first time Dec 5. In the meantime, they have been subjected to nasal-swab COVID-19 tests three times a week for 13 consecutive weeks now. That’s not including the personal sacrifices each players was asked to make.

Georgia is one of only four SEC teams that did not encounter significant personnel losses because of COVID-19 in its football program (Alabama, Kentucky and South Carolina were the others). The Bulldogs were able to do that because of strict adherence to institutionally installed health-and-safety protocols an almost militant social-distancing. Position groups that had too many players to sit six feet apart in UGA’s designated meeting rooms would instead meet in the Payne Indoor Center or spread out in the weight room, outside or other expansive areas around the football complex. The Bulldogs were encouraged to remain in campus quarters as much as possible. All team-personnel movements were traced via Kinnexon technology and cleaning crews were also close behind with a rigorous disinfectant regimen.

Meanwhile, Georgia’s internal player leadership group – which included many of these same seniors and underclassmen -- reportedly was fierce about enforcing safe behaviors outside of team activities. Hanging out at parties and in bars was strictly forbidden.

To say it fell short of a typical college experience would be a gross understatement.

“I’m just so appreciative of all our players and our staff for following the instructions they were given and staying healthy all fall,” Georgia Athletic Director Greg McGarity said Friday. “We’re all indebted to them for being ready to play every week. I hope our fans understand and appreciate what these players did. I admire their discipline and their desire to play football.”

In the meantime, nine football players were among 30 Georgia athletes who picked up degrees Friday. They were Trey Blount (sport management), Patrick Burke (risk management), Daniel Gothard (mechanical engineering), Trey Hill (sport management), Prather Hudson (sport management), Marshall Long (communication studies), Julian Rochester (communication studies), Bill Rubright (finance) and Kolby Wyatt (sociology).

Whatever seniors decide to stick it out, the Bulldogs still plan to honor them with a bowl-game Senior Day ceremony. Barring a rash of upsets in the conference championships games, that’s expected to be the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year’s Day at Mercedes-Benz Stadium.

In the meantime, UGA this week made the decision to refund all of the ticketholders for this Saturday’s game. At $150 each, that’s not a small gesture a week from Christmas. However, it will be January before those refunds are distributed.

Many Power-5 programs that had games canceled have asked fans to donate the money to defray the spiraling costs and revenue losses of this pandemic-altered season. Georgia did that with its donor base at the beginning of the season, more than 50 percent of which chose to the Bulldogs keep their contributions without attending the games.

This time, UGA intends to give the money back. It also will ask the SEC for reimbursement.

“I don’t know if they will or not,” McGarity said. “I talked to (the SEC) about our exposure and, frankly, we just don’t know how that might work. But we wanted to refund everyone (about 12,000, excluding students, faculty and visiting teams) because they’ve been so good to us throughout this unusual season. We wanted to return that good will.”

Of course, UGA will be soliciting donations from Hartman Fund and Magill Society members again early in 2021. Like all SEC programs, Georgia Athletics expects a budget shortfall approaching $50 million.

That the SEC will have been able to conduct 68 of the 70 games it scheduled amid the global pandemic is a triumph in itself. Any revenue at all this year is a bonus, never mind the excitement and entertainment the games provided.

As for the bowl game, unless a team is in the playoff, increasingly it has become a showcase for young players. Georgia is an inordinately young team as it is, especially on offense.

More and more, veterans are moving on.

“It’s a been a blessing,” Rice said when asked last week about playing the last of his career for Georgia. “The time here has flown by. I have appreciated it. It has been special from the beginning to the end.”

Just ending a little earlier than expected.

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