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Photo by Jason Parkhurst / This embrace between coach Kirby Smart and quarterback JT Daniels after Georgia's 24-21 topping of Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl on New Year's Day seemed unlikely this time last year, when Daniels had yet to even transfer to Athens.

Georgia sixth-year football coach Kirby Smart described a recent scene with his players that is likely transpiring all over the country.

"I asked everyone to stand up who had not been through a spring practice at Georgia," Smart said this week on a Zoom call, "and I'm going to venture to say it was 65-to-70% of the team that stood up. That's a scary thing. It just shows you the youth you have and the lack of practices and experiences your team has."

The Bulldogs were among eight Southeastern Conference programs that never conducted a 2020 spring practice due to the outbreak of the coronavirus. Alabama was hours away from opening last March 13, when the SEC suspended all of its athletic activities after scratching the men's basketball tournament in Nashville the day before.

Tennessee was able to stage two spring football practices in what would be Jeremy Pruitt's third and final year at the helm.

The axing of spring drills at Georgia prevented the Bulldogs from adjusting to new offensive coordinator Todd Monken and Wake Forest graduate transfer Jamie Newman, who was college football's third-best returning quarterback behind Clemson's Trevor Lawrence and Ohio State's Justin Fields, according to Pro Football Focus. Newman was the decided favorite to start for Georgia entering the 15 practices that never occurred.

"You can imagine that this time last year was a whirlwind in terms of trying to figure out Monken and trying to install different things," Smart said. "The pace at which we are doing walkthroughs now and being able to do things offensively has been much better."

Georgia's 8-2 season that was capped by a 24-21 topping of Cincinnati in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl transpired after Newman opted out in early September and with three starting quarterbacks: D'Wan Mathis for the opener at Arkansas, Stetson Bennett for the next five games and JT Daniels for the final four, including the bowl. Daniels announced his intention to transfer from Southern California to Georgia in late May.

"This time last year, I don't even have a clue what he was doing," Smart said. "He has come a long way in terms of the volume of information he has gotten."

The Bulldogs are scheduled to start spring workouts March 16, and there is no shortage of offensive optimism. Daniels completed 80 of 119 passes (67.2%) for 1,231 yards with 10 touchdowns and two interceptions during his four games, and his top six receivers return, a stat that doesn't even include the rehabbing Dominick Blaylock (ACL injury).

Georgia offensive line coach Matt Luke has the luxury of versatile veterans such as Jamaree Salyer, Warren Ericson and Justin Shaffer, as well as promising five-star talents such as Broderick Jones from last year's class and early enrollee Amarius Mims. Sophomore Darnell Washington could challenge to be the top tight end nationally later this year, while the top five running backs return as well.

Zamir White and James Cook combined to rush 189 times for 1,082 yards (5.7 per carry) and 14 touchdowns last season before choosing to come back over an early shot at the NFL.

"It's very similar to the situation when Sony Michel and Nick Chubb came back," running backs coach Dell McGee said. "From a team standpoint, they want to do more, and they feel like they are a part of the success that we can have. I think it's a good situation for our younger running backs and our younger players, because they offer a lot of leadership mentally and physically on how to perform, how to practice and how to take care of their bodies.

"It's very comforting to have those guys back."

There is a lot of comfort taking place in Athens these days, which is why Smart already is guarding against too much of it.

"Obviously the offensive continuity towards the end of the year began to improve, and we have a lot of a guys who are coming back, but that doesn't mean you're going to have success because they're coming back," Smart said. "I think the more that there is a message out there that you're going to be great, the tougher our job becomes internally to motivate.

"There have been offseasons here where we've had a returning quarterback, returning backs and two great tackles, but did that equate to instant success? Not necessarily. What you do and what you earn is what you get in the offseason. Nothing is given to you."

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

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