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Photo by Cassie Florido / Georgia redshirt junior defensive back Eric Stokes (27), the only player nationally this season with two interceptions returned for touchdowns, has declared for the NFL draft and will not play in Friday's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Cincinnati.

Several Georgia football players have elected not to suit up for Friday afternoon's Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl against Cincinnati, but Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart is not concerned with those decisions.

"I'm focused on Cincinnati, Cincinnati and COVID," Smart said Saturday night on a Zoom call. "Those are the opponents we're dealing with right now. We're focused on the guys who are here and are going to try and play the game."

Tight end Tre' McKitty, right guard Ben Cleveland, inside linebacker Monty Rice and cornerback Eric Stokes are bypassing the New Year's Six showdown, with all four having started in Georgia's 49-14 win at Missouri on Dec. 12 that wound up capping a 7-2 regular season for the Bulldogs. Georgia was scheduled to host Vanderbilt on Dec. 19, but the Commodores had to cancel that trip due to positive COVID-19 tests and subsequent contact tracing.

A fifth prominent Georgia player, outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson, entered the NCAA transfer portal last week and announced Saturday that he was heading to Florida State.

"The guys who aren't playing have a particular reason, and I'll leave that up to those guys," Smart said, "because some of them have been injured throughout the year."

Smart said Cleveland (shoulder) and McKitty (knee) have played through injuries this season and that Rice has battled a nagging foot since the 41-24 loss at Alabama on Oct. 17. Stokes has declared for the NFL draft and is turning his attention to that.

Rice has racked up 214 tackles in his four-year career, while Stokes has a team-leading four interceptions and is the only player nationally with two interceptions returned for touchdowns.

"Monty has rotated quite a bit this year, with Quay (Walker) and Nakobe (Dean) having played a large amount," Smart said. "There were two or three games where Monty went in to spell them because he was doing all he could to help the team and wasn't able to go full speed. Channing (Tindall) has played more. Rian Davis. Nate McBride. All those guys have gotten more opportunities and will continue to.

"It's the same at DB. Other guys have gone in at corner — (Ameer) Speed and Jalen Kimber, and Daran Branch has grown up and started to play more. Those guys have to step up and be able to play."

Some media outlets reported Azeez Ojulari wasn't playing in the bowl, but Smart said the redshirt sophomore outside linebacker would be competing against the 9-0 champion of the American Athletic Conference. Smart added that senior safety Richard LeCounte III, who hasn't played since suffering a concussion in a motorcycle crash on Oct. 31, is doing everything he can to play against the Bearcats as well.

The Bulldogs returned from Christmas break and underwent COVID-19 testing Saturday night, with additional rounds scheduled for Monday morning and Wednesday morning.

"We have three hurdles to get through, and we're on pins and needles," Smart said.

Georgia will begin game-week practices Sunday and will remain in Athens until heading for Atlanta on Thursday night. That means the Bulldogs will play a bowl game despite spending less than 24 hours in the host city.

So much for postseason experiences in 2020.

"We're trying to avoid doing a lot publicly, because we're trying to avoid any positive tests that might knock somebody out for this game with the numbers spiking all across the country and really right here in Georgia," Smart said. "Our concern is with our players who have gone home and come back. There is not a lot you can do to enjoy the bowl.

"You've just got to enjoy the fellowship of your teammates and stay safe."

 

Vols not missing out

Tennessee and South Carolina accepted bowl bids last Sunday before having to withdraw due to COVID-19.

In a typical year, SEC teams have 12 to 15 practices for bowl games, with the on-campus workouts before Christmas often serving as a coveted time for coaches in developing the younger players on their rosters.

"They're really beneficial when you get the full allotment," Smart said. "When you get five practices and then come back and practice for the bowl game, those are really good, but we didn't get that this year with the pushed-back schedule. We had two practices last week where we worked on Cincinnati, did a little bit of good on good as well, and this week is a game week.

"We don't get that benefit that we traditionally get."

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

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