Georgia produced its share of off-the-field headlines in late December and early January, when quarterback Jake Fromm, running back D'Andre Swift and offensive linemen Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson elected to forgo remaining eligibility for the NFL draft.
Those departures overshadowed decisions made by safety Richard LeCounte, inside linebacker Monty Rice and defensive end Malik Herring, who chose to come back and play as seniors for the Bulldogs. Georgia led the nation in scoring defense last season, yielding just 12.57 points per game, and is overrun with defensive talent and experience entering Kirby Smart's fifth season.
Talent and experience are always welcome traits on any college roster, but especially amid a COVID-19 pandemic.
"I think experience is probably magnified in this season and in this setting more so than ever before," Smart said this past week. "Experience is so valuable when you don't get to practice. We have obviously been shortened in terms of spring practice and in terms of meetings, and in terms of summer conditioning we are already being shortened, so a lot of those things have shortened us.
"We will have to be wise in the decisions we make. We have to be smart, and that is no different than any other year."
Decisions by Smart and his staff will be aided by the return of LeCounte, who earned his first career start at Notre Dame in 2017, Rice, who had a team-leading 89 tackles last season, and Herring, who had five tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss during Georgia's 26-14 thumping of Baylor in the Sugar Bowl on New Year's evening. DJ Daniel, Eric Stokes and Mark Webb are accompanying LeCounte as veteran defensive backs, while Jermaine Johnson, Azeez Ojulari and Nolan Smith are imposing edge-rushing threats back for more.
Ojulari tallied 39 quarterback hurries and 5.5 sacks on a unit that led the nation in fewest rushing yards per game (74.6) and fewest yards per carry (2.62) while ranking second to Ohio State in fewest passing yards per attempt (5.62). Georgia's most impressive defensive stat was not allowing a rushing touchdown until the 40th quarter of the season, when Auburn quarterback Bo Nix ran into the end zone from 2 yards out in the fourth quarter of a 21-14 loss to the Bulldogs.
Georgia returns 80% of its defensive production from last year, according to metrics developed by ESPN, which could assist an offense in which new quarterback Jamie Newman, a graduate transfer from Wake Forest, has yet to attempt the first pass in practice to promising sophomore receivers Dominick Blaylock and George Pickens.
"We don't even know the threshold or the capacity of some of our players," Smart said. "We did not get to go through spring ball to see what our guys, especially on offense, can handle. We will find out what the NCAA and the SEC are going to allow us to do leading up to the season, because right now we do not know that.
"The more they give us time-wise, the more we will be able to do."
Texas A&M returns 80% of its offensive production from last year, the highest total in the Southeastern Conference. Vanderbilt returns just 35%, having lost running back KeShawn Vaughn, receiver Kalija Lipscomb and tight end Jared Pinkney from a 3-9 disappointment that matched Derek Mason's worst season during his six years in Nashville.
The two SEC teams returning the lowest overall offensive and defensive production from last year are Alabama and LSU, which combined to produce 24 draft picks in April, including 19 in the first three rounds. Obviously Alabama and LSU are known for annually stockpiling talent and then developing it, but there was little to no development this spring, with Ed Orgeron's Tigers getting in just three workouts.
Nick Saban's Crimson Tide were hours away from their first practice when the coronavirus halted spring football throughout the country.
"Guys have done a good job in the offseason program and not having a lot of issues and problems," Saban said this past week, "but because we didn't have spring practice, it's really hard to evaluate the progress, especially of the younger players who are less experienced and who benefit the most from spring practice.
"Hopefully, if we can get back to some kind of summer program, we'll be able to systematically implement something that will help the development so these guys will be a little more ready for fall camp."
Tennessee, Texas A&M and Kentucky each returns eight starters on both sides of the ball, the most of any SEC programs in a year when veterans may be treasured like never before.
"I am excited about the experience coming back on defense," Smart said. "We have a lot of experience there."
Fairchild picks Georgia
Georgia picked up its ninth commitment and eighth in-state commitment for the 2021 recruiting cycle Saturday afternoon, receiving a nonbinding pledge from four-star offensive lineman Dylan Fairchild. The 6-foot-5, 298-pounder from West Forsyth High School in the Atlanta suburb of Cumming is the No. 7 guard and the No. 135 overall prospect in the 247Sports.com composite rankings.
Fairchild picked the Bulldogs over scholarship offers from Alabama, Auburn, Florida State, LSU, Penn State and Tennessee.