ATHENS, Ga. — There are guessing elements to every season opener in college football, and that's certainly the case this week for Kirby Smart and his No. 3 Georgia Bulldogs.
Georgia is facing Vanderbilt this Saturday night in Nashville, and Commodores coach Derek Mason plans to "take it up to kickoff" before announcing whether Riley Neal or Deuce Wallace will be the starting quarterback. Neal is a graduate transfer from Ball State, while Wallace is entering his fourth season at Vanderbilt but has appeared in just four games.
"We really don't know what they're going to do since it's the first game," Bulldogs senior safety J.R. Reed said Monday. "We kind of have to go just based off of what they did last year and figure it out. Once we figure out who the quarterback is, we'll move forward.
"We do have a blueprint for their system and have backgrounds on each quarterback. We just don't know how they're going to use them."
Vanderbilt is the only Southeastern Conference program yet to reveal a starting quarterback for its opening game.
Wallace is a 6-foot-2, 212-pound redshirt junior from Sevier County who redshirted in 2016 and was suspended for all of last season for violating school policy. Neal is 6-6 and 225 pounds with a wealth of experience, having completed 731 of 1,219 passes (60%) for 7,393 yards with 46 touchdowns and 25 interceptions at the Mid-American Conference program.
Neal also rushed 325 times for 1,363 yards (4.2 per carry) and 15 touchdowns, with Reed admitting his respect for that element after studying Ball State video.
"We'll expect to see both of those guys, and if one of them plays the whole game, that probably means that he's playing well," Smart said. "If we see both of them, they may be telling both of them that they can play. We've got to prepare for both and be ready to face both.
"It's not going to be as much about those guys as the guys around them, because the guys around them are really good players. They will be as good as we've faced at those three positions that we'll see this season."
Vanderbilt returns the senior trio of running back Ke'Shawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney. Vaughn is the SEC's top returning rusher after amassing 1,244 yards last season, while Lipscomb led the league with 87 receptions.
Vaughn had 79 yards on only nine carries in last November's game at Georgia, but the Commodores abandoned the run and turned to former quarterback Kyle Shurmur once the Bulldogs pulled away for their 41-13 win.
"It gets your attention when you see that Ke'Shawn Vaughn has the same number of 10-plus (yard) runs that D'Andre Swift has," Smart said. "That's pretty special, and it's eye-popping to your players. They've all done a lot to earn the respect of our players, because when you do that in our league, it grabs the attention of the room."
Vanderbilt will have not only a new quarterback but a new offensive coordinator against the Bulldogs, with Gerry Gdowski receiving the promotion after Andy Ludwig left for Utah in January.
"That makes this a little more unknown," Smart said, "but he's been in their system, and (Georgia second-year receivers coach) Cortez (Hankton) has worked with him. They have a system that has some similarities to ours."
After having defenses led by inside linebacker Roquan Smith in 2017 and by cornerback Deandre Baker last season, Smart was asked Monday if he had a "game-changer" this year on that side of the ball.
"It's still yet to be determined if we have that," Smart said. "I don't see one right now where I say, 'Ooh, that guy is unblockable on third down.' If we do have that guy, it becomes simpler to call the game as opposed to creating pressures.
"Right now, I don't know that we have that, but we have good depth and some good young players."
Freshman running back Kenny McIntosh is being used on scout team to imitate Vaughn.
"Scout team is very important," Reed said. "I was on scout team. (Former running back Elijah) Holyfield was on scout team, and so was (left guard) Solomon Kindley. It's all about working hard, and McIntosh has done a great job of running the ball really hard.
"It's an important job to give us a good look."
Odds and ends
Smart said that James Cook and Demetris Robertson lead the way for kickoff returns, while Swift, Tyler Simmons, Kearis Jackson and Dominick Blaylock are all in the mix for punt returns. Freshman inside linebacker Nakobe Dean (ankle) is not at 100% but is practicing. Smart on freshman defensive lineman Bill Norton, who was arrested early Sunday morning on DUI and underage possession of alcohol charges: "Bill, unfortunately, made a very poor decision and a poor choice in judgment. He'll suffer the consequences in that, and I'm very disappointed in him. He knows that we don't accept that behavior here."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.