Urgency high as Georgia Bulldogs open preseason football camp

041721 Athens: Georgia head coach Kirby Smart (center) looks on as quarterback JT Daniels leads a touchdown drive against the Black Team during the G-Day Game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Athens.   “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

Credit: Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@

041721 Athens: Georgia head coach Kirby Smart (center) looks on as quarterback JT Daniels leads a touchdown drive against the Black Team during the G-Day Game at Sanford Stadium on Saturday, April 17, 2021, in Athens. “Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com”

ATHENS – Finally, college football season has arrived, and it’s set for an on-time, on-schedule start. The Georgia Bulldogs will gather on Woodruff Practice Fields for the first of 25 preseason football practices Friday afternoon.

To say all is back to normal, however, would be misleading. Overshadowed amid the news regarding name, image and likeness and immediate transfer waivers in May were some newly instituted rules approved by the NCAA surrounding preseason football camps. They include: the acclimation period extended from five to seven days, helmets only the first two days, full pads not permitted until Day 6, one mandated day off in the first seven, maximum of nine practices in full pads, no more than two consecutive full-contact practices and no more than two preseason scrimmages.

The guidelines were enacted under a heading of “emergency legislation.” “Two-a-days,” as were commonplace for decades, were done away with in 2017.

So, it will be under those limitations that the sixth edition of coach Kirby Smart’s Bulldogs will start to work. But at least they’re assured that camp will get under way Friday. This time last year, that remained in question because of the coronavirus pandemic.

There is added incentive to round into top form quickly as Georgia will open the season against what’s expected to be a top-5 opponent in Clemson on Sept. 4 in Charlotte (7:30 p.m., ABC).

Here are five things to watch regarding the 2021 Bulldogs:

JT Daniels’ full potential

Daniels ascended to the top of some betting houses’ Heisman Trophy boards about the time he was introducing himself to SEC media in Birmingham last month. But the truth in what the Bulldogs have in the junior quarterback has yet to be determined.

While Daniels was proficient as a ball-distributor while leading Georgia to a 4-0 record in his only four games played at the end of last season, his work came against three of the SEC’s bottom-tier teams in Mississippi State, South Carolina and Missouri and a salty Cincinnati team of the American Athletic in the Chick-fil-A Bowl. In other words, no teams of the caliber of Clemson or Alabama.

Still, extrapolated over a 12-game season, Daniels’ hypothetical passing numbers of 3,693 yards, 30 touchdowns and six interceptions along with a 67% completion percentage are eye-popping, to say the least. And as Daniels points out himself, it’s not as though he or the offense have remained static. With a full spring-practice session and 10 months of side-by-side work with coordinator Todd Monken and Georgia’s offensive skill players, significant improvement was bound to be made.

“It’s makes a difference; reps are reps,” Daniels said. “Everybody that played against Cincinnati on offense is playing now. That’s rare and really a strength for us, especially with how well spring went.”

QB protection

Technically, Georgia will be replacing only two starters on the offensive line after losing center Trey Hill and right guard Ben Cleveland to the NFL. But the reality is there likely will be much more change and adjustment for line coach Matt Luke over the coming four weeks.

Georgia got a boon with Jamaree Salyer’s decision to return for his senior season, but where he’ll play remains largely undetermined. Salyer started all nine of the Bulldogs’ regular-season games at the all-important left-tackle spot last season and performed admirably. But Georgia moved him inside to left guard for the bowl game to get a look at the more prototypical left tackle Xavier Truss. Results were mixed, especially before the Bearcats’ star defensive end James Hudson was ejected late in the second quarter.

The Bulldogs will be facing another level of pass-rush potential in the opener against Clemson. The Tigers feature one of the best pass rushers in college football in sophomore Myles Murphy, and Pro Football Focus ranks Clemson’s collective pass rush sixth in the nation heading into the 2021 season.

So, if Salyer clearly is the best overall pass protector at left tackle in camp, you can bet Georgia is going to play him in Charlotte. Smart said Salyer continues to “cross-train” at guard and tackle. Meanwhile, sophomore Broderick Jones, freshman Amarius Mims and several other highly recruited linemen will continue to compete with Truss, a 6-7, 330-pound sophomore.

Who’s the ‘X?’

LSU transfer Arik Gilbert is a tremendous addition for the Bulldogs. But he comes to Georgia after playing just one season of college ball, at tight end. So, while Gilbert has been getting summer reps at split end, also known as the ‘X’ position, to think that his presence negates the lost production the Bulldogs had with George Pickens is naive.

Pickens, who was lost to an ACL knee injury the second week of spring practice in late March, was going to be listed among the best wide receivers in the SEC if he was healthy this season. Pickens led the team with 36 catches and six touchdowns despite playing in only eight of the Bulldogs’ 10 games last season. Split out wide in Georgia’s offense, Pickens’ presence demanded extra attention from opposing safeties and left the Bulldogs’ other pass-catchers with unlimited one-on-one opportunities.

Gilbert’s presence at the X doesn’t assure that, nor would it with Georgia’s other notable split ends. Freshman Adonai Mitchell made a splash with seven catches for 105 yards and a touchdown in the spring game. The Bulldogs’ are excited to get Marcus Rosemy-Jacksaint (ankle) back from injury, and they await the emergence of a healthy redshirt freshman in Justin Robinson, among other options.

But whether they have a legitimate, every-down threat who will stretch opposing secondaries to the wide side of the field in Gilbert or somebody else will have to be demonstrated in camp and, ultimately, in games. Meanwhile, figuring out how the Bulldogs will utilize Gilbert amid all their other offensive weapons will be intriguing to watch.

Secondary re-tooling

It’s hard to think of any Power 5 team doing a better job of addressing its needs through the transfer portal than Georgia did with its defensive backfield. With the additions of former Clemson cornerback Derion Kendrick and former West Virginia safety Tykee Smith, the Bulldogs added an all-conference player and an All-American, respectively. They enter camp not only as potential contributors, but as likely starters.

However, the addition of these two experienced DBs does not account for the tremendous loss of production the Bulldogs incurred with starting corners Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes and starting safeties Richard LeCounte and Mark Webb entering the NFL draft and regular backups D.J. Daniel (NFL) and Tyrique Stevenson (Miami transfer) also moving on. No SEC team comes close to Georgia in terms of the number of snaps in the secondary it is having replace this season.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs will be making the transition under the guidance of new secondary coach Jahmile Addae. And there’s needed improvement in the back end of the defense. In Georgia’s two biggest games last year against Alabama and Florida, the defense allowed 891 yards passing and 85 points in the season’s only two losses.

The good news is UGA has recruited DBs at a tremendously high level. Likewise, the competition for roles and playing time is going to be intense. Incumbent starters such as senior Ameer Speed at cornerback and fifth-year senior Latavious Brini at star aren’t going to just step aside to let the transfers take over. And Georgia’s coaches recruited former 5-star prospects such as Jalen Kimber, Kelee Ringo and Nyland Green with the intention of them either overtaking or succeeding lettermen ahead of them on the depth chart.

The competition will be more intense here than anywhere on the field.

Continued healing

There remains hope within the Bulldog Nation that Pickens will be able to return at some point. It seems a bit fantastical considering he will not be even eight full months removed from ACL reconstruction surgery by the time November rolls around and will continue to project as an early NFL draft selection even having suffered the injury. But Smart revealed that the star receiver has been “straight-line running” over the summer and remains with the team.

Meanwhile, Georgia has several other injury recoveries to monitor. Sports medicine director Ron Courson is no doubt keeping a close eye on the rehabilitation of former starting slotback Dominick Blaylock. He suffered a second ACL tear last August of the same knee he injured in December 2019 in the SEC Championship game. Also, senior slotback and kick returner Kearis Jackson had arthroscopic knee surgery this summer, and Rosemy-Jacksaint is only nine months removed from suffering a fractured ankle against Florida. And that’s just among the wide receivers.

Star linebacker Nakobe Dean was among several Bulldogs who underwent offseason shoulder surgeries and missed spring practice. So, Courson’s celebrated training room inside the new $80 million football-operations building promises to have a lot of activity.