ATHENS — Georgia coach Kirby Smart still gets excited about the start of preseason camp. Admittedly, though, it’s not quite as exciting as it once was.

When Smart played for the Bulldogs in the 1990s, players were on their own all summer. When they returned to campus in August, they were immediately subjected to speed-and-conditioning testing to see how well they were prepared for the coming grind.

Nowadays, NCAA rules allow players to train all summer under the supervision of strength-and-conditioning professionals, work out on their own and spend eight hours a week with their position coach. There’s not much mystery about who has made strides and who has not.

“I get excited, yeah, being the first day we can go out and practice, but the NCAA allows you to do so much more in the summer,” Smart said. “We didn’t see our coaches when we were here in the summer. We had testing when we got back. It was the first day that freshmen reported for us. Now we’ve got 19 (freshman signees) here in the spring.”

There remains work to do, however. The Bulldogs were on the field Thursday for the first of 25 sanctioned preseason practices. Judging from the tone and volume of the coaches’ voices on Day 1, the players weren’t achieving the pace and synchronicity that they expected.

Smart, who utilizes a microphone on Woodruff Practice Fields, complained throughout the 17-minute observation period when reporters were on the field.

“It’s overcast and 60 degrees out here, and you guys are acting like it’s hot,” Smart yelled out over the surrounding loudspeakers.

“How can you be tired already? We just got started,” tight ends coach Todd Hartley exclaimed at his charges.

While they have worked out and stayed in shape all summer, it truly is not the same as when all 11 full-time assistants, graduate and student assistants, trainers and managers are on the field at the same time. And even though the Bulldogs were working out in shorts and helmets – players call it “spiders” – there was a lot of hand-to-hand combat and incidental contact going on in the various position drills.

“This game is physical; this place is physical,” junior Javon Bullard said. “We just had a practice in ‘spiders’ and it still was physical, and it’s always going to be like that.”

Another major difference is the entire team has moved into rooms in the hotel inside the Georgia Continuing Education Center for the next two weeks. They’ve been sworn to stay off social media and not venture out on their own until camp is adjourned and classes begin Aug. 16.

“Your mindset switches,” junior wide receiver Arian Smith said. “When Aug. 2 hit, your mindset changes to like a ‘dawg’ mentality. You have to be prepared for it, no matter what it is.”

Sorey ascending

One of the concerns heading into the season is the absence of Smael Mondon. A junior inside linebacker from Paulding County, Mondon was a stalwart on last season’s defense and potential All-American on this one. However, a foot injury has kept Mondon sidelined since spring practice and could keep him limited into the season.

The good news for the Bulldogs is Mondon’s absence coincides with Xavian Sorey’s recent ascension in level of play. A 6-foot-3, 214-pound third-year sophomore out of Campbellton, Florida, Sorey has been the talk of the defensive meeting room dating to last spring.

“Yeah, probably the most growth Xavian has had has been in the last 5-6 months,” Smart said. “Since Smael’s injury, he has exponentially grown in terms of confidence, ability to execute. He’s been healthy, No. 1, and he’s had a lot of opportunity of reps of being out there with the ones. I mean, he’s a guy who has really picked it up in terms of leadership and growth, and he has a lot of athletic ability.”

It gets better for the Bulldogs. Thanks to confidence and continued development among the outside linebackers, Georgia has committed to playing Jalon Walker inside. A 6-2, 225-pound sophomore, Walker had been cross-training while getting the majority of his game reps last year on the edge.

“That’s his natural position,” Smart said of Walker at inside linebacker. “That’s what he wants to grow at, and he’ll be in that competition for guys that get an opportunity to play. He has a unique trait of being able to rush the passer well, which not all inside linebackers have.”

Redshirt freshman E.J. Lightsey and freshmen C.J. Allen and Raylen Wilson also are repping at the position.

Credit: Chip Towers

Georgia star Javon Bullard discusses settling in at safety.

Bullard set at safety

Speaking of position moves, Javon Bullard seems to have settled in quite nicely at safety and appears to be set to stay there. The 5-11, 180-pound junior starred at Georgia’s nickel- and dime-back position – known as “star” – last season, earning defensive MVP honors in national championship game.

But the Bulldogs feel like they have other capable “stars” and believe Bullard can have an even greater impact playing the strongside safety role handled by Christopher Smith last season alongside Malaki Starks, who’s now a sophomore.

“It’s really according to the plans of the coaching staff; I’ll play wherever they put me at,” Bullard said after working exclusively at safety Thursday. “I love the game, and I embrace it, and we pride ourselves on versatility. … I’d learn linebacker if I could.”

It should be noted that Bullard’s favorite player and one he tries to model his game after is NFL safety Tyrann Mathieu. Bullard also pointed out that the Bulldogs are getting excellent play from senior Tykee Smith and freshman Joenel Aguero at the star position.

“Tykee Smith is a great player, All-American guy, stand-up guy; can’t wait to see him ball out this year. We have Joenel. We have so many other guys who can step in and play great Georgia football.”

Asked specifically about Aguero, Bullard said: “Joenel is a freak athlete, man, and the guy shows it on a day-to-day basis and at practice, really a playmaker.”

Practice observations

Georgia practiced for about two hours Thursday outside on Woodruff Practice Fields. The Bulldogs avoided thunderstorms that slammed northeast Georgia in the early morning and late afternoon, but worked out in the mid-morning hours mainly because several players had summer-semester final exams conflicts. … That might have had something to do with the absence of cornerback Kamari Lassiter from the first practice. A 15-game starter last season, Lassiter was not spotted with the other defensive backs during a 17-minute media observation window. UGA officials did not respond to an email asking about Lassiter’s whereabouts. Daylen Everette and Nyland Green appeared to be working with the first team at corner, but hard to tell with the mishmash of drills going on. …

Sophomore Mekhi Mews was the first player to go deep to return punts. That will come as no surprise to those who saw his dynamic returns during the G-Day spring game. Mews also was working in the slot on offense. … Missouri transfer Dominic Lovett was working with the No. 1 offense at slot receiver in the early part of Thursday’s practice. The other wideouts with the No. 1 unit were Ladd McConkey at flanker and Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint at split end. ...

Junior wideout Rara Thomas was repping at third-team split end. That possibly could be an indication that the Mississippi State transfer won’t play in Georgia’s opener as punishment for an offseason misdemeanor arrest. Or not … Lining up as the first-string offensive line were left tackle Earnest Greene, left guard Xavier Truss, center Sedrick Van Pran, right guard Tate Ratledge and right tackle Amarius Mims.