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Four, in Dawg Years

By Matt Smith
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With an intriguing mix of young stars and talented veterans, Georgia has no more excuses when it comes to claiming the SEC East title.

Four, in Dawg Years

Like most of the SEC bluebloods, it was expected that Georgia would lose a number of key juniors to the NFL Draft following the 2016 season. In major college football, it’s merely a product of success, and can be used as a great sales pitch to recruits. When you recruit good players and develop them, they move onto the NFL radar and want to cash in as soon as possible (insert witty joke here).

Georgia did the first two steps during the past three years under since-departed Mark Richt and second-year head man Kirby Smart, but the payback didn’t happen. Running backs Nick Chubb and Sony Michel, and linebackers Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter all delayed their professional careers in order to play a final season in Athens.

Smart understands the stay-or-go process as well as anyone in the league. In his decade as an assistant at Alabama, around four or five of his defensive standouts faced the decision annually. His experience in Tuscaloosa helped guide him through the assessments for the quartet of Bulldogs.

“The process at Alabama really helped me,” Smart said. “In nine years, we had a lot of guys. A lot decided to stay. I kind of leaned on that experience. I think the best thing you can do for the players is not do much at all. I always believed in being the information gatherer. I talked to a lot of teams in the NFL.”

Georgia’s senior class has never been to the SEC Championship Game, falling a game short as freshmen and seeing hopes as sophomores and juniors fade away in the late October night of Jacksonville after humbling defeats to rival Florida – a team that only a handful of fifth-year seniors have experienced has beaten in their time in red and black.

Ultimately, the decision rests of the players, of course. What drove Chubb, a two-time 1,000-yard rusher who plays the position that has seen more early entrants on a per capita basis than any other, back to college for his senior year?

“I hold myself to certain goals and things I want to achieve,” Chubb said. “Last year really wasn’t up to the high standard we have here at Georgia.”

Georgia fans were surprised enough to have one half of their two-headed monster in the backfield returning, but they were shocked when both Chubb and Sony Michel decided to return to school. Michel carried the load in Chubb’s absence with a knee injury during the second half of the 2015 season and ran for more than 800 yards a junior.

Like Chubb, Michel didn’t want 8-5 to be his lasting image of his time at Georgia.

“Just falling short in some games last year, the possibility of trying to go to the [SEC] Championship,” Michel said of what drove him back to school. “There were so many factors. It was a decision that I prayed upon. It was the right decision for me to stay.”

Even Georgia players who didn’t have a decision to make were impacted. Junior linebacker Roquan Smith isn’t eligible for the draft until next year, but his job was made much easier in January when Bellamy and Carter announced they were returning as well.

In a flash, Smith went from thinking he would be the leader of the 2017 linebacking corps to just being one piece of a unit that would return intact from 2016.

“Having some guys who had an opportunity to go to the next level and actually chose to come back and compete for a championship, they pretty much know that the defense is going to be really good this year,” Smith said. “It means a lot to have everyone back.”

While it might have made practices more challenging for him, Smith was also delighted to have Chubb and Michel back in the fold.

“To have two guys like that, great running backs like that coming back, the offense is going to be a lot better. It’s exciting.”

While Smart admits to some inherent bias, he attempted to see past that when supporting his players’ decisions to play for him for a final season.

“I think each one of them made a great decision,” Smart said. “I say that not because they stayed and it helps me, but because I think they made the right decision. They’ll get their education by staying. When you can educate a player and help him, I feel like I’m doing my job.”

If Georgia is to be denied an SEC East title for a fifth straight year, it won’t be because of a lack of experience. The Bulldogs have a rare opportunity with seniors returning who could have been early-round NFL Draft picks last spring – one for which Chubb, Michel, Bellamy and Carter passed up millions of dollars.

Matt Smith - Matt is a 2007 graduate of Notre Dame and has spent most of his life pondering why most people in the Mid-Atlantic actually think there are more important things than college football. He has blogged for College Football News, covering both national news as well as Notre Dame and the service academies. He credits Steve Spurrier and Danny Wuerffel for his love of college football and tailgating at Florida, Tennessee, and Auburn for his love of sundresses. Matt covers the ACC as well as the national scene.