‘Making the bus’ easier on SEC road this season

UAB running back Isaiah Jacobs (20) is tackled by Georgia defensive back Dan Jackson (17) as Tramel Walthour (90) moves in to assist during the first half of their game at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 23, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 49-21. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Combined ShapeCaption
UAB running back Isaiah Jacobs (20) is tackled by Georgia defensive back Dan Jackson (17) as Tramel Walthour (90) moves in to assist during the first half of their game at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 23, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 49-21. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

ATHENS — The players call it “making the bus.”

Georgia’s Dan Jackson will never forget the first time he “made the bus.” It was on a Thursday – Sept. 2, 2021 to be exact. The third-year walk-on from Gainesville walked up to the wide-screen video monitor in the locker room and saw his name listed among the Bulldogs on the travel roster. He knew then – and only then – that he would accompany the team to Charlotte, North Carolina, to play Clemson.

“It’s a great honor,” Jackson said, asked Tuesday to reflect on that day. “It’s what I wanted to do the first day I stepped on campus here. No matter what it looks like, a special-teams role, a starter on defense, no matter what it is, any time you make the bus, it’s a true honor. I think it’s everybody’s goal.”

That makes this a particularly tense week for a handful or so of Georgia football players. The Bulldogs are playing their first SEC road of the season, and that means the roster size to travel to Auburn for Saturday’s game is limited.

Turns out it’s not as limited as usual. Somewhat quietly, SEC athletic directors voted on a video conference call last month to expand travel rosters to 74 players. The number had been 70 for many years. So has the dress-out number of 80 players for the home team, which remains the same.

“That’s a new conference rule, and that’s helped tremendously,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said on the SEC coaches’ conference call Wednesday. “We met with our ADs and everybody lobbied (for it), some for it to be more, some to be less. … The home roster has 80 and the visitors now has 74, which is a change. Seventy-four or 75, that’s usually special teams, or if you’re down a couple of players at a position you might take more because of the risk of injury. So, that’s ultimately what it comes down to.”

One of the main reasons SEC coaches wanted to be able to take more players is simply to keep them happy. Not “making the bus” can be a tremendous disappointment, especially for those players right on the edge of having a full-time, established role. In the age of the transfer portal, too many such letdowns could result in good, still-developing players deciding to go somewhere they might be more likely to travel.

“The more players you can engage, the better,” Florida coach Billy Napier said Wednesday. “Special teams is where it makes it most difficult. There’s always a handful of kids you wish you could take.”

Teams can dress and take as many players as they desire for non-conference games. But making the “cut” for a conference game always has been big deal within SEC locker rooms.

Georgia senior defensive end Tramel Walthour remembers his “first travel” like it was yesterday.

After transferring in from junior college and redshirting in 2019, Walthour finally made the bus when the Bulldogs opened the COVID-delayed 2020 season on the road against Arkansas.

“They put it on the big screen,” said Walthour, a sixth-year defensive end who started the 14th game of his career Saturday. “If you see your name there, then you know you definitely made the roster. Then you’ve got to go to this one room and watch the film or whatever, and that’s it.

“I saw my name up there, and then went. I feel like I was ready for it.”

Both Jackson and Walthour definitely will be on the bus for Saturday’s game at Auburn. Each has been filling in for an injured starter and may have to again Saturday. Jackson started Saturday at strong safety for injured starter Javon Bullard, who has missed the past two games with an ankle injury. Walthour started against Alabama-Birmingham after sophomore Mykel Williams was scratched because of an illness.

Smart said both reserves filled in admirably.

‘A role’ for McConkey

It sounds more and more like Ladd McConkey is going to be on Georgia’s travel roster. The junior and star flanker did not play in the first four games because of a complicated back ailment. But Smart indicated on the coaches’ call Wednesday “there may be a role for him” against Auburn.

“He’s looked really good,” Smart said of McConkey’s two days on Woodruff Practice Fields this week. “It’s been ‘walk before you run, run before you sprint, and then sprint and get contact.’ We’re kind of in the stages of that.”

McConkey has been sidelined since preseason camp with the mysterious back issue, which seems to come on without warning, then disappear just as quickly. The Bulldogs finally shut down McConkey from all physical activity the past two weeks, which seems to have helped.

“He has to trust it,” Smart said. “He’s doing exactly what the doctors have told him and the experts have told him. We’ve had several specialists meet with him. So, he’s coming back.

“He’s getting faster each day in terms of ramping up. Conditioning is a factor, as well, because we expect it to be hot, and he hasn’t played a lot. So there may be a role for him depending on what he does.”

McConkey was Georgia’s second-leading receiver last season behind tight Brock Bowers. He had 58 catches for 762 yards and seven touchdowns. He’s also been the Bulldogs’ leading pass catcher the past two times they played Auburn, with a combined 10 receptions for 182 yards, including a 60-yard touchdown.

About kicking

UAB returned three kickoffs for 80 yards, and the Bulldogs twice have had kickoffs sail out of bounds this season. But Smart said he has been mostly pleased with the job that junior Jared Zirkel has done as the kickoff specialist for Georgia. Nineteen of his 30 kickoffs have been touchbacks.

“The ball placement I wish could improve,” Smart said. “But what Zirkel does, he gets really good hang time. I think, if anything, you’d say (UAB) had opportunities to return the ball, where previously he’s kicked them out.”

Special-teams play is critically important always, but especially in SEC road games. So far Georgia’s marks in that area have been decidedly average. Freshman place-kicker Peyton Woodring already has three missed field-goal attempts and has no makes beyond 35 yards. The Bulldogs also have lost fumbles on a punt return and a kickoff return.

On the other end of the spectrum, Georgia punter Brett Thorson has been excellent. A sophomore from Australia, Thorson is averaging 43.4 yards on 13 punts with no touchbacks, nine fair catches and seven pins inside the 20.

Auburn is considered strong on special teams. Kicker Alex McPherson is 3-of-3 on field-goal attempts, with a long of 53, and Keionte Scott ranks third in the SEC in punt-return average, at 19.2 yards, with a long of 56.

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