A matter of weeks before the season opened, however, fortune didn’t bounce in the Bulldogs’ favor.
On the same afternoon, Smith and sophomore tight end Darnell Washington suffered the same foot injury and underwent procedures. They’ve yet to play for Georgia this season, and have missed four games despite the original “day-to-day” prognosis by Smart. Brini had to fill Smith’s spot at Star and responded with his own share of production.
Ahead of No. 2 Georgia’s Saturday showdown with No. 8 Arkansas (noon, ESPN), Smith and Washington have returned to practice. The duo of recovering Bulldogs didn’t travel to Vanderbilt for the sole purpose of being able to undergo workouts in the team facilities, Smart said, and passed a series of tests for clearance.
“They’re back in drills, practicing and doing everything this week ‘full-go,’” Smart said Monday. “We’re under the expectation that they’ll be able to play and help us.”
Smart sounded a bit less bullish on the status of Smith and Washington after evaluating their performances through two practices, which he said were “a bit up and down.” Smith exhibited quickness Monday, but didn’t show it as much during Tuesday’s practice. Georgia had Smith on a “pitch count,” however, and limited reps to avoid soreness in the foot as volume of practice increased.
“They’ve got a ways to go. I don’t know if they’ll be able to play in the game or not,” Smart said. “They’re working towards it, I promise you that.”
If Georgia is able to get any semblance of playing time out of Smith, it likely would welcome it against the Razorbacks’ playmakers. Georgia’s secondary will face its first legitimate test since the Sept. 4 season opener against Clemson, and Arkansas features experienced receiver Treylon Burks. He has recorded 373 yards and two touchdowns through four games.
Smith came to Georgia as one of two big-name defensive transfer additions, joining former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick. He caught Smart’s eye because of his experience and tackling prowess, and the Bulldogs’ coach and longtime evaluator of talent thought Smith would “help make our team better,” but the injury situation set him behind.
Smith, through two full seasons at West Virginia, had two interceptions in each season, combined for nine pass deflections and recorded a total of 111 tackles.
“We knew what we were getting (in Smith),” Georgia safety Lewis Cine said. “He’s a sound guy who brings a lot to the table.”
“He’s a spectacular player who is great in coverage,” fellow safety Christopher Smith said upon Tykee Smith’s arrival. “He can definitely help our team.”
Meanwhile, Georgia has reaped the benefit of having Brini in the fold for his fifth season. He has consistently produced through four games, with his highlight being a pass deflection and display of strong coverage in the end zone to help preserve the 10-3 win over Clemson. Brini never wavered from his commitment to the Bulldogs, and his confidence began to grow in last season’s Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl finale against Cincinnati.
Now, he’s given Georgia comfort at the position while Smith continues his return to play.
“My confidence has continued to build,” Brini said. “It’s a process, and I try to build on that confidence each week.”
Saturday’s bout with Arkansas will mark one of the biggest in Georgia’s season that has seen plenty of success. An All-American player could arrive to give the Bulldogs another weapon, but it’s not a done deal.
Smart implored that it’s about stamina and an increase in reps along with being cleared before a player like Smith can return to the playing field. Any contribution, even if in a rotation with Brini, can give the Bulldogs a glimpse of a player they saw as one of their biggest pickups of the offseason.
“It’s tough, I’ll be honest with you,” Smart said. “I’m still very hopeful that they both can help us.”