Kirby Smart predicts that Georgia Bulldogs will be ‘full tilt’ for Clemson

ATHENS – Kirby Smart said expects his Georgia team to be “full tilt” for the opener against Clemson, and he didn’t even knock on any wood when he said it.

After two weeks of negative injury-and-personnel news dominated the headlines for the Bulldogs’ preseason camp, their coach Saturday said pretty much everybody who has been out either is back on the field or will be by the time that game kicks off in Charlotte on Sept. 4 (7:30 p.m., ABC).

“We don’t have an injury that’s got us out for a long amount of time,” Smart said Saturday after the Bulldogs’ second scrimmage at Sanford Stadium. “We hope to get all those guys back. Every one of them was day-to-day, and some of them are practicing now. Each one of them is a different situation, but I expect to be full-tilt when Clemson comes.”

That supposedly includes tight end Darnell Washington and defensive back Tykee Smith. Though Smart did not address them specifically, those two were the latest projected starters to go down with injuries. Each reportedly suffered foot sprains in practice Tuesday.

While neither participated Saturday, Smart said Georgia “had more guys healthy today than we did in the last scrimmage.”

Particularly re-energized Saturday was a receiving corps that had been depleted since the first week, and really going back to spring. Sophomore flanker Jermaine Burton was full speed again after being slowed with an ankle sprain and even caught a long touchdown pass from quarterback JT Daniels. Slot receiver Kearis Jackson, who is recovering from an arthroscopic procedure on his left knee over the summer, has been completely cleared, though still practicing in a brace. Sophomore flanker Arian Smith was back after being slowed the past 10 days with a toe injury.

Split end Arik Gilbert did not participate Saturday, but he could possibly return before the opener, according to people with knowledge of his situation. The LSU transfer has been sidelined since the first week of camp because of “personal issues,” according to UGA.

Smart dismissed any notion that the absences at wideouts may have interfered with Daniels’ timing.

“JT’s for the most part had pretty good rhythm with his guys,” Smart said. “You can make excuses all the time, but people are injured in football. So, you go play with the guys that are out there. And they got to throw all summer.”

Smart lauded Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint and Justin Robinson for their toughness and being available throughout camp, which ended Saturday.

“Justin has taken a little bit of ownership in terms of, ‘I’m going to be able to help this team and have a role on it,” Smart said. “Whether it be on special teams, as a wide receiver, doing other things, he’s getting better.”

Of course, after practicing 12 times in the past 16 days, there are still some players on the sidelines. Junior tight end John FitzPatrick (foot) missed his second consecutive scrimmage. And Smart revealed that freshman tackle Amarius Mims, a 5-star prospect, has been slowed by back spasms that have forced him to miss some practices throughout the preseason.

Meanwhile, the offensive line appears to be rounding into form. On Saturday, the No. 1 unit featured Jamaree Salyer at left tackle, Justin Shaffer at left guard, Sedrick Van Pran at center, Tate Ratledge at right guard and Warren McClendon at right tackle.

The bigger concern for Smart is keeping his team healthy and safe from the coronavirus and the new variants that seem to sweeping through the South. UGA classes resumed for in-person, fall-semester instruction Wednesday. That means approximately 50,000 individuals are back on campus between students, faculty and staff.

“Our campus is as crowded as it’s ever been,” Smart said. “So, the efficiency for our players in terms of getting to class, being on buses, interacting with a student population that may not have the same vaccination rate as our team is a concern. It worries me because our guys are exposed to that. We’re doing everything we can to not expose them to any greater risk. … (But) they have to go to class, and we can’t put every kid on our team in online classes. So we’re trying to minimize risks as much as we can.”

Smart said the team’s vaccination rate has been above 90% for a while. But with the start of classes, the Bulldogs added another two dozen or so walk-on players and team managers.

“I saw the Falcons are at 100%, and a lot of credit to them,” Smart said. “And ultimately that is our goal. But we’re not there yet.”

Smart didn’t see the opener against Clemson being on the road in Charlotte as any more problematic than playing at home.

“We’re pretty secluded (at road games),” Smart said. “We don’t get around a lot of fans. Our travel is just us, and that’s not going to change. Our hotel is just us. … The biggest difference is the vaccination, and that doesn’t make you foolproof.”