Who would you rank as the coaches most important to UGA’s success?”
That question was recently posed to me by a DawgsCentral subscriber in response to a piece of intel that I posted on our forum. I started to type out a response, but a couple sentences in I realized that the answer to the question is quite complex. To make such a list, one must make broad value judgments on what assets are most important to a modern college football program.
When thinking about the answer I also found myself thinking about an old football cliche… "It's not the X's and the O's but the Jimmys and the Joes." That got me considering the players who will suit up on gamedays for Georgia next fall. Good gameplans and great play calls are key to any team’s success, but they are usually only as good as the personnel executing them.
With that in mind, I decided to broaden the scope of these rankings beyond just members of the coaching staff. As I go through this list I will touch on every position room and virtually every facet of the Georgia Football program. In that way, it will serve as both my version of a spring practice preview and a look at the state of the program.
Today we kick the rankings off with #23. Since we are a newer website and this might be your introduction to DawgsCentral, the first few entries in this series will not be paywalled. As we get further down the list it will become a subscriber’s only feature.
So without further adieu, here are the 23 people most crucial to UGA’s success in the year 2023. Whether or not Georgia is able to win a third straight championship, and how they go about trying to do it, will be largely influenced by the roles these individuals play.
#19 - Tykee Smith
The 2023 UGA defense has a lot of known commodities…
- Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon return to patrol the box as inside linebackers.
- Defensive end Mykel Williams will be joined by a host of talented young pass rushers will come off the edges.
- Veteran interior linemen like Nazir Stackhouse, Zion Logue and Warren Brinson will lead a room full of young blue-chip recruits in an effort to control the run lanes in the middle.
- Boundary corner Kamari Lassiter returns after playing 825 snaps for the Bulldogs defense last year.
- Nickel corner Javon Bullard is readying for another season in Athens after being named the defensive MVP of the CFP National Championship and the Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl.
- Free safety Malaki Starks returns to the secondary after leading the team in number of snaps played.
That is a lot of returning production for any college football team. It is a ton for a program that is coming off of a national championship season. All of that experience has many people predicting big things for the 2023 Georgia defense, but the unit’s ceiling may be determined by how well Georgia is able to replace the three veteran starters it lost to the NFL Draft.
Jack linebacker Nolan Smith is gone from UGA’s defensive front. Left cornerback Kelee Ringo and strong safety Christopher Smith have departed from the secondary.
Earlier in this series we looked at who may replace Kelee Ringo at the boundary corner position when discussing Daylen Everette. Today we are going to talk about how UGA might deal with Christopher Smith’s exit from the program.
When Tykee Smith arrived in Athens in the summer of 2021, many assumed he would start right away for the Bulldogs. He had played the “spear” role as an overhang/slot defender the prior two seasons at West Virginia. That position is referred to as the “star” in Georgia’s defense, and the Bulldogs usually have that player lined up in coverage against the slot receivers of opposing offenses.
In 2020, Tykee Smith was one of the most productive slot defenders in the FBS. He allowed just 110 yards receiving (4.4 yards per catch) on 25 receptions and didn’t give up a single pass play over 15 yards despite being targeted 38 times. He recorded 2 interceptions and 3 passes defended. In addition to excelling in coverage, Smith was an excellent run defender. His 45 tackles were third on the 2020 West Virginia team. 27 of those tackles resulted in plays that were a failure for the opposing offense.
Most figured that Smith would only be in Athens for one season when he arrived on Georgia’s campus in the summer of 2021. The instincts he showed at WVU made him seem like a natural fit for Kirby Smart’s defense, and the media figured he would shine for the Bulldogs for the next few months before being an early-round pick in the 2022 NFL Draft. Then the injuries started to pile up.
Smith suffered a sprained foot just a few weeks before Georgia’s opener against Clemson. That injury sidelined him for UGA’s first five games. He finally returned against Auburn. He suffered an ACL tear in practice the next week. After just seven snaps his season was over…
Christopher Smith started a lot of games at the safety position for the Bulldogs over the last three years. He slid into the position after Richard LeCounte was injured in 2020. Smith immediately showed his skills in coverage, allowing just 4 receptions for 50 yards in 263 coverage snaps over the course of 9 games that season. Smith put himself on the national radar in Georgia’s 2021 season opener against Clemson in Charlotte. He scored the only touchdown of the game on a 74-yard interception return in Georgia’s 10-3 victory over the Tigers. In 2022, Smith became one of UGA’s defensive leaders and turned in an All-American season.
Replacing Smith will be important for UGA. He made some big plays over the years like the pick-six against Clemson and his interception in the 2021 national championship, but what made him most valuable was his relentless consistency. He rarely made coverage errors and filled run lanes on time while almost never making mistakes in pursuit of the football.
His trustworthiness is perhaps best illustrated by his performance against Tennessee in 2021. The Bulldogs entered Knoxville ranked #1 and undefeated on the year. Early in the game, the Vols offense moved the ball efficiently against Georgia. A 10-play opening drive ended in a 9-yard touchdown pass from Hendon Hooker. After a UGA touchdown, the Vols and Bulldogs traded three-and-outs. On the next possession, Tennessee drove 78 yards in 13 plays to set up a field-goal.
Josh Heupel had found a matchup he liked in the Georgia secondary, picking on nickel corner Latavious Brini to move the ball down the field on the Bulldogs top-ranked defense. It felt like Georgia might be in for a shootout and the Neyland Stadium crowd was starting to believe.
Recognizing the matchup that Heupel wanted to exploit, Georgia moved Christopher Smith down from safety and into the nickel spot to shutdown Tennessee’s slot receivers. It worked, and Smith’s coverage skills helped Georgia’s defense settle in. The next four UT drives ended in three punts and an interception and all of them lasted five plays or less. Georgia went into halftime up 24-10 before finishing off a 41-17 victory in the second half. By moving Smith to the slot, Georgia’s staff had erased the matchup that Heupel wanted to exploit.
That story is informative for our purposes because much like Chris Smith, Tykee Smith’s skill set could allow him to be an effective player at both the nickel and safety positions for the Bulldogs.
When you turn on Tykee Smith’s tape from West Virginia you immediately notice certain traits. He is relentless in pursuit, excellent at shedding blocks, fluid in coverage, shows great instincts, hard-nosed against the run… Those are the hallmarks of a good slot defender in modern college football. Those words could also be used to describe Javon Bullard, the man who played at the nickel for UGA in 2022.
With Bullard suspended for UGA’s game at Missouri this past season, Tykee got the starting nod against the Tigers. He played 55 snaps that night in a tight road win for the Dawgs. He made some strong plays at times while showing a bit of rust from his previous injuries at others.
The similarities between Smith and Bullard make things tough when your try to project UGA’s starting lineup in 2023. They are very similar players. Both possess the skills required to play in the slot, but those skills also translate to the strong safety position as well. Will the Dawgs ask Tykee to slide into his old role from his West Virginia days like they did last year at Missouri and then move Bullard to safety? Could we see Smith patrolling deeper parts of the field next to Malaki Starks?
Smith is now almost 18 months removed from the ACL injury he suffered in October of 2021. Despite being a reserve, his play seemed to improve as UGA’s 2022 season went on. In Georgia’s mid-November win over Mississippi State he played 28 snaps, allowing just one reception for 7 yards over the course of 23 coverage snaps. Against TCU he recorded a sack and allowed no receptions on two targets in 29 snaps played.
I turned on Smith’s tape from West Virginia… On one play he immediately recognizes run and slips past a WR’s block before undercutting the running back on a tackle for no gain on the perimeter. On the next he reads a QB’s eyes and darts backwards to beat a receiver to his spot on a deep post and intercept a pass in the back of the end-zone. He drops into zone coverage on a third-and-long and delivers a punishing (and clean) hit to a TCU wideout to break-up a deep slant at the first down marker. He reads screens and blows them up for big losses after cutting under a failed block attempt from a WR… A few minutes of clips make it clear that Smith is capable of making disruptive plays at every level of the defense against both the run and the pass.
Those types of plays got Tykee named to a Freshman All-American team as a first year starter before being selected to numerous All-American teams as a sophomore in 2020. Since then, Smith has had a daughter named Zyla. Born in the spring of 2022, her presence in the world has only strengthened his desire to reach his goals.
Tykee’s “why” for playing football is clearer than ever. Smith talked about how Zyla inspired him to keep working through the many long hours of injury rehab when he met with reporters last year. “The biggest thing that keeps me going every day is my daughter. When times get tough, that’s who I am thinking about. I’ve got to feed her,” said Smith.
Georgia is only in its second week of spring practice, but sources are already talking about how Smith looks lighter on his feet. He is playing without a brace and appears to have regained confidence in his surgically repaired knee. There is no longer hesitation when he cuts.
Smith will get another five months of practices and conditioning before Georgia kicks off its 2023 season. Many elite football players require two years before they fully return to form after tearing an ACL, and he will be 23 months removed from the injury when the Bulldogs start their title defense.
If Smith is able to return to form it will be a major boost to UGA’s defense in 2023. He and Bullard possess similar styles of play, and there is a good chance that we could see both of them on the field together at times this season. Bullard created havoc in all of Georgia’s biggest games last season. A healthy Smith did the same during his time at West Virginia.
One player like Smith or Bullard in a secondary is a headache for an offensive coordinator, but two guys like that roaming around at different levels of the defense would be a nightmare. It would also give Kirby Smart, Glenn Schumann and Will Muschamp a lot of opportunities to disguise blitzes and design coverages that will confuse opposing quarterbacks.
A healthy Tykee might just be the thing that takes a great UGA defense and makes it elite.