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Updated with more information at 12:45 a.m. on Sept. 5, 2021.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart obviously hasn't been kidding this year when discussing the likelihood of playing time for redshirt freshman receiver Ladd McConkey.

McConkey made his collegiate debut during Saturday night's showdown with No. 3 Clemson inside Bank of America Stadium, and it was an active one. The former North Murray High School standout started and had two catches for 12 yards as the No. 5 Bulldogs posted a 10-3 victory.

Georgia's top two returning receivers from last season, Kearis Jackson and Jermaine Burton, combined on two catches for 11 yards.

"I can't make excuses, but we've had parts of our offense available all camp but never everybody," Smart said afterward. "Jermaine Burton missed two weeks after spraining his ankle in the very first practice. That has affected him, and we didn't know if Kearis would be able to go or not. Kearis has been cleared to go, but he's just not himself yet.

"He's 85% or 90%, but we felt like he gave us the best chance in punt returns because of his confidence. In a game with this kind of atmosphere, we trust his experience. I'm not using that as an excuse, though, because we've got some other good players out there. They played a soft zone and didn't give us a lot of shots."

McConkey's first career reception occurred midway through the first quarter, resulting in a 4-yard gain on a pass from JT Daniels to Clemson's 45-yard line. The drive stalled, but Bulldogs punter Jake Camarda pinned the Tigers at their 2-yard line.

Midway through the second quarter, McConkey snagged an 8-yard reception out to Georgia's 33-yard line to continue a drive that also ended in a punt.

The 6-foot, 185-pounder from Chatsworth, Georgia, is the lowest-rated signee of the Smart era, ranking as the nation's No. 1,161 overall prospect in the 2020 recruiting cycle. He was incredibly versatile for the Mountaineers, however, racking up 3,051 all-purpose yards as a senior.

"He's got great toughness," Smart said before preseason camp. "He's got great savvy. He has no fear. He's going to compete at wide receiver."

McConkey, who worked on the scout team last year and did not appear in any games, was also targeted by Daniels late in the first quarter, but he overthrew him at the Clemson 6.

 

Impressive debut

Another busy member of Georgia's offense was freshman tight end Brock Bowers, who also started and tallied a team-high six receptions for 43 yards. The 6-4, 230-pounder from Napa, California, had four catches for 23 yards in the first half.

Bowers was a four-star prospect in the 247Sports.com composite rankings for the 2021 recruiting class, checking in as the nation's No. 3 tight end and the No. 102 overall recruit.

His significant playing time Saturday was not only the result of his talents but also the fact that sophomore Darnell Washington missed the game with a foot injury and that junior John FitzPatrick played despite not being at full strength. Washington, the former five-star signee from Las Vegas, started seven of Georgia's 10 contests last season.

 

Sizable takedowns

Georgia had seven sacks of Clemson's D.J. Uiagalelei, which isn't exactly the easiest thing to do given that Uiagalelei is 6-4, 250.

Junior linebacker Nakobi Dean registered two of the sacks despite being four inches shorter and 25 pounds lighter than his victim.

"He's pretty big," a smiling Dean said. "We knew going into the game that he was bigger and that we had to do certain things on defense to try and throw him off. Sometimes in the past, our defense has been predictable, and it shows how much work we put in during the offseason and into this game."

 

Atmosphere savored

Bank of America Stadium had an evenly divided audience that stayed to the end, creating an atmosphere that was sorely missed last season due to socially distanced crowds.

Smart began his Zoom call afterwards by thanking both fan bases.

"We all missed that kind of atmosphere, and it was special for our players to play in," Smart said. "I told (Clemson coach) Dabo (Swinney) before the game that I thought the atmosphere was incredible. It reminded me of a playoff or a conference championship type of atmosphere. It was electric at the hotel and driving in.

"I thought their crowd matched our crowd. When they had momentum, I felt like it was a road game. When we had momentum, I felt like it was a home game. It was a really electric atmosphere."

 

Pinning them back

Camarda was a Pro Football Focus All-American last season and got off to quite the dazzling start Saturday.

The 6-2, 180-pound senior from the Atlanta suburb of Norcross had his first punt of the season downed at the Clemson 10-yard line, while his second was downed at the 2. His third punt of the evening traveled 51 yards, giving him an average of 44.7 yards for the efficient first half.

Camarda had a punt early in the fourth quarter downed at the 13.

 

Odds and ends

Georgia increased its series advantage over Clemson to 43-18-1. ... Redshirt freshman right guard Tate Ratledge left the game in the first quarter with a foot injury. ... Georgia had seven first-time starters: McConkey, Bowers, Ratledge, redshirt freshman center Sedrick Van Pran, junior defensive end Travon Walker, senior cornerback Ameer Speed and graduate transfer cornerback Derion Kendrick, who previously played at Clemson. ... Christopher Smith's 74-yard interception return for a touchdown in the second quarter marked the 19th defensive or special teams score in the Smart era. Five of those 19 touchdowns are pick-sixes, with Smith producing the longest. ... The captains for Georgia's mammoth opener were Daniels, senior running back James Cook and junior inside linebacker Nakobe Dean.

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

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