As Georgia prepared for the Rose Bowl last season, Kirby Smart was impressed by one of his early enrollees who never took a snap vs. Oklahoma.
Cade Mays had only been in a Bulldog practice uniform for a few days after signing his national letter-of-intent out of Knoxville, (Tennessee), Catholic, but the former five-star offensive lineman wasn’t fazed. He was practicing full speed and “lighting up” pro-caliber defensive lineman, according to Smart.
“Wow, this guy’s talented,” Smart said, as he recalled the thoughts of opposing linemen last December. “He’s not intimidated by the environment.”
It paid off for Mays as he played in 10 games as a freshman and started in seven.
A year later, Georgia prepares for its Sugar Bowl appearance against Texas, and there’s anticipation for a similar result. About half of those practices are centered around development of its own players without studying the Longhorns. There’ll be progressions seen by young players who played sparingly this season.
Over the weekend, Georgia welcomed D.J. Daniel, Jermaine Johnson, Tramel Walthour and Clay Webb to engage in the six-to-seven practice periods. Daniel, Johnson and Walthour are junior-college products while Webb is a five-star enrollee out of Oxford High School in Alabama.
After an acclimation period, which ends Monday for those who practiced throughout the weekend, Georgia’s staff will get a more-realistic look at their potential. The four on-campus enrollees won’t travel to New Orleans for the game on Jan. 1.
Mays and center Warren Ericson were the only two to participate in bowl practices last season, but now a heavier load of newcomers breeds greater opportunity. That’s where making a bowl game, regardless of its caliber, brings a significant advantage.
“I think there are levels of my game untapped just because of the resources unavailable to me at Independence,” Johnson said to The Telegraph before getting on campus. “No disrespect to them. I will have so many resources, people and so many other things to help me progress my game both on the field and on the whiteboard.”
Added four-star commit Ryland Goede, who will enroll in January: “We watched practices Saturday during the official visit, and it was cool to see. It gives these guys a chance to get acclimated to the offense and lifting routines. I know I need to be a weight-room junkie.”
Senior linebacker Juwan Taylor said it was “camp-like” in the Bulldogs’ preparation this week, and that serves as help to those who have been on the roster throughout the season as well.
There’s extra time for those recovering from injury -- like freshman cornerback Divaad Wilson who Smart said is “growing” after a torn ACL -- and time for enhanced instruction that might not be possible during a fast-paced season.
“You’ve got to do a really good job of structuring, making it fun, making it competitive and coaching your younger players,” Smart said. “This is where it may affect them in spring practice and fall camp to make our team better. I think we’ve always done a really good job of using bowl practice to springboard these younger players into a better role.”
In order to do so, Georgia alters its practice approach. It won’t make a drastic move as to remove seniors from practice, but they will leave during designated periods to give the underclassmen the full attention of Smart and his staff.
It’s something that has paid off for Smart in each of his three seasons. Before Mays’ jump, it happened with linebacker Roquan Smith who finished with 13 tackles in the Liberty Bowl vs. TCU.
Over a year later, Smith was a first-round NFL draft pick. Georgia hopes once more that its biggest gain comes before meeting with Texas.
“There are a lot of guys who are stepping up and get more reps,” quarterback Jake Fromm said. “The seniors leave practice about halfway through, so those guys can move around, play multiple positions and get as much work as possible.”