After the incredible 2021 season for Georgia football, the offseason was filled with questions about how the team would replace its production in 2022. The Bulldogs saw a record 15 players taken in the 2022 NFL Draft. Five of those players, all on the defensive side of the ball, were taken in the first round.
Georgia has always recruited extremely well under head coach Kirby Smart, but many of these former highly-ranked recruits did not have much in-game experience on the collegiate level. Smart himself expressed this concern before the season began. Because of this, some in the media expected 2022 to be a “rebuild year” for the Bulldogs.
Despite the youth and inexperience, this team has picked up where last year’s team left off. They currently sit at 13-0 and are going to their second straight College Football Playoff. Sure, there have been some growing pains (see the Kent State and Missouri games), but overall the team has found a way to win every game they have played so far, and the young players have been big reasons why.
Georgia football has a stable of youngsters ready to lead the Dawgs to victory.
Malaki Starks was arguably the most impactful freshman for Georgia this season. The former five-star safety out of Jefferson, Ga., introduced himself to Dawg nation when he made an incredible interception against Oregon in the season opener. He also led the team with five tackles in a 49-3 rout of the Ducks in Atlanta.
The biggest play of his freshman year came against Missouri a few weeks later. With Georgia down 13-3 in the second quarter, Tigers running back Cody Schrader broke off a huge run that would have been a touchdown had Starks not run him down. This play held Missouri to a field goal, which would be crucial in Georgia’s 26-22 comeback victory against the Tigers.
Starks currently has two interceptions and 63 tackles this season, which is the second most on the team. He was named to the SEC All-Freshman team in December. Three of his fellow teammates were also named to the All-Freshman team: punter Brett Thorsen, linebacker Jalon Walker, and defensive end Mykel Williams.
Williams has 2.5 sacks and four tackles for loss on the year. His 27 quarterback hurries are among the most for freshmen this season.
A pair of sophomore linebackers also emerged as vocal leaders for the Georgia defense this season. Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon were tasked with replacing the production and leadership of Nakobe Dean, Channing Tindall, and Quay Walker. They have done that and more this season. Dumas-Johnson and Mondon are tied for the most tackles on the team at 64. JDJ also leads the team with three sacks and eight tackles for loss.
Dumas-Johnson’s most memorable moment came on the sidelines during the Missouri game, as he ripped into cornerback Kamari Lassiter after blown coverage led to a Tiger touchdown. It was similar to Dean getting all over Tindall for a missed assignment in the national championship game against Alabama.
Both of these men play selflessly, putting their teammates above themselves. They dismiss stats and rankings to focus on just winning games one at a time. This attitude is contagious, and it has spread through the offense and defense.
Though the offense for Georgia was the most experienced group on the team, a couple of new players made an impact this season. Freshman wide receiver Dillon Bell had three touchdowns in his first season with the team, including one in the SEC Championship against LSU.
Running back Branson Robinson also flashed his potential during the season. His breakout game came against Auburn, as he rushed for 98 yards and a touchdown. Many began calling him “baby Chubb” after the game, and with runs like this, it’s not hard to see why he could become the next Nick Chubb for the Dawgs.
The running game for Georgia will likely be a key to the game against Ohio State. The Buckeyes gave up 252 yards on the ground against Michigan, and the Dawgs averaged 207 yards per game. Expect Robinson to get a few carries in this game alongside Kenny McIntosh, Daijun Edwards, and Kendall Milton as they try to wear down Ohio State’s defense.
If the Dawgs beat Ohio State and eventually win the national championship again this season, it will be largely due to the young players who have stepped up on this team. Replacing future NFL starters is never an easy task, but these guys proved during the year that no moment was ever too big for them. They are ready to create their own legacies at the University of Georgia.