Old meets new as Georgia Bulldogs prepare to open preseason camp Thursday

Georgia Bulldogs running back Kendall Milton (2) runs through a hole created by Georgia offensive lineman Tate Ratledge (69, left) and offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran (63, right) for a 51-yard gain by Milton against the LSU Tigers during the second half of the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. Georgia won 50-30. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia Bulldogs running back Kendall Milton (2) runs through a hole created by Georgia offensive lineman Tate Ratledge (69, left) and offensive lineman Sedrick Van Pran (63, right) for a 51-yard gain by Milton against the LSU Tigers during the second half of the SEC Championship Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta on Saturday, Dec. 3, 2022. Georgia won 50-30. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart will address the media Wednesday afternoon as the back-to-back defending national champion Bulldogs prepare to step on Woodruff Practice Fields for the first official practice of the 2023 season Thursday.

The objectives for Smart’s eighth preseason camp are apparent. On offense, he’ll need to settle on a No. 1 quarterback, a left tackle and running back and wide receiver rotations. On defense, the Bulldogs need to decide who will step in at cornerback for Kelee Ringo and safety for Christopher Smith and how they’ll line up in general in the secondary. All the options appear encouraging.

There are obvious voids at defensive tackle and outside linebacker left from the departures of NFL first-round picks Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith. But in each case, experienced replacements stand ready to take their places. The linebacker group, again, is loaded.

And that scenario pretty much defines the 2023 Bulldogs. Overall, they’re very much a mishmash of old and new. Georgia has a ton of experience on its squad, starting with the coaching staff and trickling down through the player roster. It’s actually a makeup that has defined the Bulldogs’ run in which they’ve won 17 consecutive games and 29 of their past 30.

Let’s review:

Old: Last year’s team motto was, among others, “Sweep The Sheds,” an homage to New Zealand’s All Blacks rugby team, the world’s most successful professional franchise. It’s a reference to attending to the details of daily preparation, all the way down to sweeping the floors at the end of the day.

New: This year’s mantra is “Better Never Rests.” It’s another All Blacks reference, and it speaks to the idea of never getting complacent despite previous success. At SEC Football Media Days, Smart and the players who accompanied him to Nashville, Tennessee, all talked about “the threat of complacency.”

“If you acknowledge that complacency is a threat, that’s the first step towards stomping it out,” Smart said. “So we look for two things when we look for people to join our organization. … We want to find people who love football and embrace a selfless role. And those two … are not dependent on outcomes.”

Old: Smart pointed to staff continuity being one of the more positive aspects of the 2023 team. While the Bulldogs lost heralded offensive coordinator Todd Monken to the NFL’s Baltimore Ravens, the promotion of Mike Bobo into that role means that every full-time member of the 11-man coaching staff was in the Butts-Mehre football complex last year. That is indeed unusual for a team coming off a national championship.

New: While Bobo spent last season in an offensive analyst role for the Bulldogs, it has been nine years since he installed the offense and called plays for them. What that means for an offensive that averaged 41.1 points a game a year ago is unclear at this point. But the narrative that Bobo is an old-school coach who wants to run first and throw off play-action is old and tired. His last Georgia teams threw the ball all over the place – and that was with Todd Gurley and Nick Chubb in the backfield – and the 2014 squad’s scoring average of 41.3 points remains the program record. Similarly, Bobo’s teams as head coach (and play-caller) at Colorado State all ranked in the top three in the Mountain West Conference in yards per play in every season but one. And word is, he knows how to call a pass play for the tight end. The Bulldogs should be all right.

Old: Let’s face it: Carson Beck is old by new quarterback standards. A fourth-year junior, he enters preseason camp at Georgia for the first time as QB1. Meanwhile, when it comes to experience, none of his competitors at the position can hold a candle to him. He’s played in 12 games as QB2, completing 62.1% of his 58 passes for 486 yards, six TDs and two interceptions. Thanks to the Bulldogs’ victory margins the past two years, he has gotten a lot of real-time work in stadiums across the SEC.

New: While Smart hasn’t yet designated Beck as QB1 – he may not, ever – he acknowledges that the 6-4, 220-pounder’s loyalty and experience affords him the benefit of the doubt. But Georgia has continued to recruit at a high level at the position, and both third-year sophomore Brock Vandagriff and redshirt freshman Gunner Stockton stand at the ready to take over. Smart said game performance will be the ultimate determining factor for which guy ends up being the quarterback of record for 2023.

Old: Last year, Kenny McIntosh and Daijun Edwards did the lion’s share of work in the offensive backfield. While McIntosh clearly was RB1 and got the majority of touches among the Bulldogs’ backs, it seems lost on many that Edwards got nearly as many carries (140) as the starter (150). Over the course of 15 games, that’s a slim margin indeed.

New: Injuries have made depth in the backfield a topic of discussion. Both Kendall Milton and Branson Robinson have seen their offseason work limited because of lingering issues. Milton is a running back the Bulldogs especially would like to see stay on the field more. He led the Bulldogs with a 7 yards per carry average, but missed two games with lower-leg issues and remains a work in progress catching the ball out of the backfield. Freshman Roderick Robinson proved durable in spring practice and enters camp fighting for a spot in the regular rotation.

Old: Carter was a dominating presence in the middle of Georgia’s defense, and those skills apparently are translating well for the Philadelphia Eagles, according to reports out of their training camp. So, to think Georgia will just be able to replace him without any drop-off would seem foolhardy, especially with Carter’s heir apparent, Bear Alexander, now a member of Southern Cal’s football team.

New: The Bulldogs have a bunch of grizzled veterans returning on their defensive front. Among them, Nazir Stackhouse, Zion Logue, Warren Brinson and Tramel Walthour have played in an average of 25 games. This is why Pro Football Focus tabbed Georgia’s defensive line No. 1 in the country. Mykel Williams, only a sophomore, missed spring practice with a toe injury, but the belief is he may be the best defensive end Georgia has had during Smart’s eight-year tenure. The Bulldogs will miss sorely Nolan Smith’s impact on the edge – not to mention his leadership – but they’re extremely optimistic about the future with Jalon Walker and Marvin Jones Jr. Both have recovered from offseason shoulder surgeries and are expected to be ready for the first game.

Old: Georgia had a couple of blocks of granite the past two seasons in cornerback Kelee Ringo and safety Christopher Smith, and their experience will be missed. Between them, they played almost every meaningful snap of every significant game the Bulldogs played the last two seasons.

New: While junior Kamari Lassiter returns to man one corner position, the rest of the secondary is very much up in the air. Experimentation has been rampant in the back third of the defense since spring practice, and the competition for the two open positions remains unsettled. Even dependable nickel back Javon Bullard spent most of the spring at safety, where he might end up transitioning full time. The objective of coaches Will Muschamp and Fran Brown obviously is to settle on a best five (or six), regardless of where they may have lined up before. How it will shake out between Nyland Green, Daylen Everette and Julian Humphrey at corner is anybody’s guess heading into camp.

Old: Thanks to graduation, transfers and the NFL draft, Georgia also has starting positions to decide at left and right tackle, has to identify a place-kicker, holder and kick returner on special teams and must settle on a rotation at wide receiver. The talent bleeds at those spots were significant.

New: Amarius Mims steps in a right tackle, Jared Zirkel is the heir apparent at kicker, and the Bulldogs made out as well as anybody in the transfer portal with the additions of wideouts Dominic Lovett and Rara Thomas. Former 5-star recruit Earnest Greene looks to take over at left tackle, but somewhat surprisingly, finds himself in an intense battle with Austin Blaske. Georgia, as ever, has good answers.

Old: Georgia was supposed to open the season against Oklahoma in Norman. That game went by the wayside after the Sooners and Texas joined the SEC starting in the 2024 season.

New: The Bulldogs open instead against Tennessee-Martin at Sanford Stadium in 31 days. That’s an unfortunate development, but not one that should impede Georgia from making a run at an unprecedented third consecutive national title.