No. 9 Georgia more concerned about COVID, Cincinnati than ‘opt-outs’

Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes (27) runs with the ball after intercepting a pass intended for Missouri wide receiver Tauskie Dove (86) in the Bulldogs' last game. The redshirt junior is among at least four UGA players who are opting out of Friday's Peach Bowl game against Cincinnati. (L.G. Patterson/AP)

Credit: AP

Credit: AP

Georgia cornerback Eric Stokes (27) runs with the ball after intercepting a pass intended for Missouri wide receiver Tauskie Dove (86) in the Bulldogs' last game. The redshirt junior is among at least four UGA players who are opting out of Friday's Peach Bowl game against Cincinnati. (L.G. Patterson/AP)

ATHENS -- Georgia coach Kirby Smart is more concerned about COVID-19 than opt-outs when it comes to player availability for Friday’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl matchup against Cincinnati.

The No. 9-ranked Bulldogs (7-2) broke camp for three days to celebrate Christmas before players returned to campus late Saturday to resume preparations for their New Year’s Day Six bowl game against the No. 8-ranked Bearcats (9-0). Between the players being outside the school’s control and recent spikes in outbreaks of the virus across the state, Smart said he was “on pins and needles” awaiting results of the first round of testing.

“That’s the (other) opponent we’re playing, COVID,” Smart said during a video conference call Saturday evening with reporters. “So, we’re trying to avoid doing a lot publicly, and we’re trying to avoid any positive tests that might knock somebody out for this game. The numbers are spiking all across over the country and really right here in Georgia. With things going on, our concerns are with our players that have gone home and come back.”

Smart said that’s a much bigger concern than all the reported “opt-outs.” That’s the trendy word to describe players who voluntarily pull out of competition to avoid the risk of illness or injury. It’s a growing issue among Power-5 teams such as Georgia that have a large number of draft-eligible players who aren’t interested in playing a game without championship implications.

However, Smart said there “has been a lot of misinformation out there” about the number of Georgia players planning to skip the bowl. There have been published reports that as many as nine players who otherwise would be eligible to play in this game have opted out.

Smart disputed that number, but confirmed that linebacker Monty Rice, offensive lineman Ben Cleveland, tight end Tre McKitty and cornerback Eric Stokes were going to skip the game. But contrary to some reports, he said that outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari, nickel back Mark Webb and safety Richard LeCounte intend to play.

“There’s a lot of misinformation out there, and I don’t really know where it’s coming from,” Smart said. “Azeez is going to play. We’ve got a lot of guys that are going to play. And the guys that aren’t, they have a particular reason, and I leave it up to those guys. Some of them have been injured throughout the year. I’m focused on Cincinnati and COVID, those are the opponents right now.”

Smart could not guarantee that LeCounte is going to play. The senior and preseason All-American candidate has been sidelined since he was involved in a near-fatal motorcycle accident Oct. 31.

“Richard’s trying to do everything he can to play in the game,” Smart said. “He’s been battling to come back. He’s been at every practice, every rehab session.”

He said Cleveland is trying to completely heal from a shoulder injury that has bothered him all season, while McKitty is recovering from a late-season knee malady. Stokes, who recently was named first-team All-SEC, is projecting as a potential first-round NFL draft choice. He is a fourth-year junior. Ojulari, a draft-eligible third-year sophomore and the team leader in sacks, is receiving some first-round draft projections.

Georgia has had a number of other players enter the transfer portal. Among them is senior outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson, a part-time starter who announced Saturday that he is transferring to Florida State.

As for the virus, Smart said the Bulldogs would have had “one or two” players miss the Vanderbilt game Dec. 19 because of COVID-19 exposures, had it been played. Instead, the Commodores canceled for the second time this season because of the presence of the virus in their program.

Meanwhile, with players home for the holidays this past week, UGA could no longer monitor their movements via the SEC’s Kinnexon tracing technology. Players were immediately subjected to PCR tests upon their return Saturday, and they will be tested two more times before Friday’s noon kickoff at Mercedes-Benz Stadium (ESPN).

Smart said the Bulldogs would not travel to Atlanta until the night before the game and won’t be participating in any typical bowl activities.

“Our concern is with our players that have gone home and come back and also with the guys being around each other,” Smart said. “So there’s really not a lot you can do to enjoy the bowl. You can enjoy the fellowship of your teammates and just stay safe so we can finish off this season.”

Georgia has had more than its share of players sit out its past two bowl games for various reasons. Last season, the Bulldogs had at least 13 players who did not travel to New Orleans to take on Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. But while a few of those were because of NFL draft concerns, such as first-round picks Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson, “a lot of those were our choice last year,” Smart said.

Though they were missing 12 players included on the two-deep, including six starters, Georgia dominated the Bears in a 26-14 victory.

This year’s matchup features an extremely motivated Cincinnati team that has been one of the more successful in college football the past three seasons. The Bearcats aren’t expected to have any opt-outs and are eager to prove their worth against Power-5 opponent after being devalued by the College Football Playoff selection committee. Cincinnati dropped in the last two rankings despite remaining unbeaten. It beat Tulsa 27-24 on Dec. 19 to win the American Athletic Conference championship.

“It’s a reward for our guys to go out and play a top-10 opponent, a team that hasn’t lost a game all year and has got one of the best programs in the country over the last three years,” Smart said. “We want to go out and perform well. We want to perform our best, to play our best game.”