23 For 2023 - The 23 People Who Will Have the Biggest Impact on UGA Football’s Success as it Pursues a Three-Peat
“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.
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…
#13 Smael Mondon
SEC head coaches have made an art form out of saying a lot of words while sharing little information. When one is standing at a press conference podium they aren’t often saying very much. Still, if you listen closely sometimes you can pull some valuable information.
That was the case when Kirby Smart took the podium for a preseason press conference on August 5th of last year. His media session that day was filled with a lot of surface level information, but there was one comment Smart made that caused me to check and make sure I had heard him correctly…
“Smael Mondon is as good an athlete as I've seen.”
Smart had just had 3 of his program’s linebackers (Nakobe Dean, Quay Walker, and Channing Tindall) selected in the 2022 NFL Draft. He coached freakish future first round linebackers like Rolando McClain, Dont’a Hightower and C.J. Mosley while at Alabama. Needless to say, Smart has been around a lot of talent over the years.
When a coach with his track record says something like that about a kid who has never started a game you better pay attention. It was in that moment when I realized that Mondon was likely to jump veterans Trezmen Marshall and Rian Davis on the UGA depth chart and land a starting role for the 2022 Georgia defense.
That’s exactly what happened for the former five-star from Paulding County. He came out with the first unit in UGA’s season opener against Oregon and the 46 snaps he played that day were the most out of any UGA linebacker.
My first impression of Mondon left me blown away by his speed and instincts. Against Oregon he jumped gaps at the snap and filled gaps where run plays were supposed to go before they ever got there. The ability to defend the run is where we should start with Mondon because defending the run is where everything starts for UGA’s defense. Kirby Smart will not be run on by anyone. If you want to play defense for Georgia you damn sure better stop the run.
Mondon squeezes between blockers and crashes into gaps when teams try to run inside against Georgia and his speed allows him to beat ball carriers to the sideline when opponents try to run to the perimeter against the Bulldogs. An SEC linebacker has to be able to do those things to be successful in the league, and Mondon checked those boxes from the moment he stepped on the field for Georgia. In 2022, he made 47 tackles as a run defender. With only 3 missed tackles on run plays, he had the lowest missed tackle percentage of any Georgia linebacker in 2022.
Mondon only recorded 1 pressure in that first game against Oregon, but the Bulldogs asked him to rush Bo Nix on 9 different occasions. That became a pattern. It is rare for the UGA defense to ask its inside linebackers to blitz, but Mondon has proven to be an exception. He rushed the passer more than any non-lineman on the UGA defense in 2022.
Mondon was selected to get after the quarterback because of that athleticism that Smart talked about back in August. Against a lot of teams the Bulldogs played more vanilla defensive schemes where they only rushed their front four defenders. When you go down the list of the best offenses and most athletic QB’s that UGA faced in 2022, you find that those were the games where the Bulldogs blitzed Mondon the most.
He went after the QB 9 times against LSU and recorded 3 pressures. Versus Kentucky and QB Will Levis he blitzed on 10 snaps and got to Levis 3 times. When then #1 Tennessee came to town, Smart and Schumann used Mondon to help collapse the pocket on Hendon Hooker. Mondon was there to ensure the Vols quarterback never had run lanes up the middle and he went after Hooker 14 times.
At one point in the CFP Semifinal the UGA secondary was being carved up by Ohio State. The Bulldogs found themselves unable to keep CJ Stroud in the pocket, so Georgia’s defensive staff made an adjustment and started letting Mondon chase Stroud to the sideline instead. He went after the future #2 overall pick 16 times. The 6 pressures and a sack that Mondon recorded were key in shifting the momentum of the game back into Georgia’s favor.
When he’s not being asked to rush the passer, Mondon is a very good inside linebacker who does everything he is asked to in Kirby Smart’s defense. He and Jamon Dumas-Johnson both had exceptional first seasons as UGA’s starting inside backers in 2022, but Mondon’s inclusion on this list happened because of his versatility and limitless athletic ceiling.
Smart, Schumann and Will Muschamp used Mondon like a floating chess piece in 2022. Looking at his presnap alignments from last season is an exercise in realizing his versatility. On the year he played 653 snaps. Of those, 511 were spent lined up at his normal position as one of UGA’s inside linebackers, but 67 times he lined up on the defensive line outside the offensive tackle’s shoulder like a true edge rusher.
Mondon also spent 69 snaps lined up over the slot in 2022. Perhaps the greatest compliment to be paid to him is just how natural he looks in coverage. Against Tennessee he lined up in the slot over TE Princeton Fant at one point. The big productive tight-end went downfield and turned inside to run a slant. Mondon backpedaled and then cut with Fant before causally reaching in to cleanly break up the pass. At 6’3” and 220 pounds, Mondon’s length comes in handy a lot in coverage.
Most SEC offensive coordinators stay up late on game weeks trying to find a way to get one of their wideouts matched up on a linebacker, but Mondon erases those plays more often than not.
In 2023, Mondon could reach superstar level. His athletic gifts have always given him an advantage. Couple his natural abilities with a year’s worth of experience and he should only get more instinctual and take better angles to the football.
That should be all that Georgia needs Smael to do most weeks, but there could come a time where an offense gives UGA problems. If there is a fire, Mondon is likely going to be part of the solution to putting it out. It may be that the staff will ask him to harass a quarterback again or shut down a problematic tight end. There’s nothing he does poorly on a football field. Whatever Georgia needs, Mondon’s athleticism and instinctive play is likely to come in handy.
Smael suffered an injury to his foot a couple days before UGA’s spring game in mid-April. How quickly will he recover from that? If he doesn’t recover from it in time to be 100% for the start of the season then the question becomes how will Georgia fill in for his absence? Xavian Sorey would likely be the most natural fill in for Mondon’s athletic ability. Can he equal Mondon’s instinctual play and run stopping prowess? How will he react when going on the road to Auburn early in the year if Mondon isn’t ready to play starter level snaps yet? Those questions loom large over Georgia’s offseason.
They will also loom large over Georgia’s run of games to start September if Smael’s recovery timeline gets delayed. Getting him healthy for UGA’s closing stretch and the College Football Playoff will become a massive priority within the program. If UGA grabs a third straight title next January, Mondon’s versatile play could be a big reason why. Win or lose, how UGA develops the talented young linebackers behind Mondon may also be a large part of the story.