Bulldogs' unique senior class can set four-year victory standard for program

Georgia photo by Chamberlain Smith / Georgia senior receiver Demetris Robertson looks for running room during the 31-24 win over Mississippi State on Nov. 21.

A most unusual senior class will go through a most unusual ceremony Saturday afternoon inside Sanford Stadium before No. 11 Georgia hosts winless Vanderbilt.

Bulldogs fifth-year football coach Kirby Smart is scheduled to meet and greet 23 players before kickoff, but it will be players and players only due to the ongoing coronavirus-related guidelines.

"It's always an emotional moment for the guys who have been a part of our program for four or five years," Smart said this week. "I'm looking forward to that opportunity, but I hate that I don't get to see their families."

Smart will meet each senior at the 50-yard line, while the senior's family will be socially distanced in another area.

Despite two regular-season games getting chopped off the Southeastern Conference's 2020 schedules due to this pandemic, Georgia's fourth-year seniors are 42-9 overall, 6-2 this season and could still set a class standard by defeating the Commodores and Missouri and then winning a bowl game. Georgia's most decorated class finished in 1983, with that group - which included Herschel Walker for three seasons - going 43-4-1 with three SEC titles (1980-82) and the 1980 national crown.

Last year's seniors were 44-12 and eclipsed the 1983 class in overall wins, and the door is open for this group to go 45-9.

"It's been a blessing," senior inside linebacker Monty Rice said. "The time here has flown by, and I have appreciated it. It has been special from the beginning to the end."

Rice has been the most productive member of Georgia's 2016 signing class, having compiled a whopping 216 career tackles. He was named earlier this week as one of the 16 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, with sophomore teammate Nakobe Dean also making the elite list.

Richard LeCounte III was a five-star signee and also has been brilliant, but the senior safety hasn't played since a motorcycle accident on Halloween night resulted in a concussion and bruised ribs. LeCounte has returned to practice but isn't expected to play Saturday.

"I think he was the very first commitment that I received upon getting the job," Smart said. "He was for the next season, but I still remember the day he was an eighth- or ninth-grader and he visited Alabama with Raekwon McMillan. He came over and I got to meet him then, and his personality was so infectious. The whole time I recruited Raekwon, I got to know Richard, and that relationship carried over when I got the head job here.

"He has been so loyal to Georgia in an era when that's not normal. It's normal to decommit and decide late, but he committed early and was a great player who stayed an extra year for his senior year. He loves the University of Georgia. That makes somebody special, and people will remember that for the rest of his life."

Two notable seniors - offensive guard Ben Cleveland and defensive tackle Julian Rochester - were in Smart's inaugural 2016 signing class and have dealt with their share of adversity as well. Last year's seniors earned their 44th victory with a 26-14 dumping of Baylor in the Sugar Bowl, but Cleveland missed that contest because he was academically ineligible.

Cleveland quickly got his academics in order, and on Monday he was named SEC offensive lineman of the week for the second time this season.

"I think he went through some spells last year where he would probably admit that he wasn't at his best," Smart said. "It's been more meaningful to him this year. He's played better, and he's been a tremendous leader for our team.

"He's got a bright future. He's a guy who didn't like the (NFL draft advisory) information he got last year, but he's going to like the information he gets this year."

Rochester's busiest year occurred as a true freshman in 2016, when he tallied 36 tackles and made six starts. He was a 12-game starter in 2018 but has since suffered two ACL tears, with the latter occurring at Kentucky on Halloween and ending his Bulldogs career.

"He's been around here for so long, and it's just a tough situation for him to have to go through again," Smart said.

Then there is the unique case of Demetris Robertson, the five-star receiver out of Savannah who left the Peach State in 2016 for the University of California, where he had 50 catches for 767 yards and seven touchdowns in earning Freshman All-America honors. He was hurt early in the 2017 season, received a medical redshirt and then transferred to Athens.

Robertson's three seasons with Bulldogs have yielded 40 receptions for 431 yards and three scores.

"Obviously, people saw what I did at Cal, but every situation is different," Robertson said. "These are two totally different systems. Clemson has a completely different system. Ohio State has a different system.

"I'm just doing what I have the opportunity to do and what the coaches want me to do."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524. Follow him on Twitter @DavidSPaschall.