ATLANTA (AP) — A significant chunk of Georgia's defense for the ages has moved on to the NFL.
Can we expect a major drop-off in 2022?
Don't count on it.
The reigning national champions still have plenty of talent on that side of the line, led by massive lineman Jalen Carter, linebacker Nolan Smith, and defensive backs Kelee Ringo and Christopher Smith.
They'll get a chance to claim the spotlight when No. 3 Georgia opens the season Saturday against No. 11 Oregon in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
“I've been a Georgia fan all my life,” Nolan Smith said. “That's one thing that's always been great around here, the Georgia defense. So I'm 100% not worrying about a drop-off. It's a standard. Just because we had a lot of guys leave last year, it's a standard of Georgia defense that we play at a high level.”
Five players off Georgia's defense were drafted in the first round, including top overall pick Travon Walker. Three other defensive standouts were selected in the later rounds.
In all, Georgia had 15 players taken in the draft — a record since the NFL went to a seven-round format.
The guy on the opposite sideline is certainly familiar with Georgia's ability to shut down opponents.
Dan Lanning served the last three years as Smart's co-defensive coordinator. Now, he's making his head coaching debut against a team he knows so well, having succeeded Mario Cristobal.
“There’s definitely some feelings of excitement for me to go play a team that I care about and was a big part of for a long time,” Lanning conceded.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart, who agreed over the summer to a 10-year contract extension worth more than $110 million, downplayed the significance of facing a former member of his staff.
He's already done it with two other ex-assistants, beating Arkansas' Sam Pittman twice as well as knocking off South Carolina's Shane Beamer.
“Neither Dan nor I will be worried about each other during the game,” Smart said. “It’s not about that.”
EYES ON THE QB
Lanning declined to name a starting quarterback, but the Bulldogs have a pretty good idea of who they'll be facing.
Bo Nix transferred to Oregon after starting the past three seasons at Auburn, one of Georgia's biggest Southeastern Conference rivals.
Nix is 0-3 against the Bulldogs.
“I know who the quarterback is going to be,” Smart said. “I’m not worried about that."
There are no uncertainties about Georgia's QB.
Coming off a storybook season in which he was picked as offensive MVP in both playoff victories, former walk-on Stetson Bennett is back for his sixth college season.
It's quite a change to be the unquestioned starter after battling for playing time every other year.
“I'm probably a little bit more excited than I was this time last year," Bennett said.
ONCE A DUCK
Atlanta Falcons quarterback Marcus Mariota, who won the Heisman Trophy at Oregon, will be an honorary captain for his alma mater.
Mariota believes the Ducks, who are 16½-point underdogs, have a chance to pull off the upset.
"They're gonna be competitive," he said.
Lanning hopes to build a program that turns out more players like Mariota.
“He stands for everything that I think Oregon football stands for," the rookie coach said. "Thrilled that he gets to be around and we get to play in his home stadium.”
Georgia's offense has a chance to create all sorts of matchup problems with an elite trio of tight ends.
Brock Bowers is coming off a dynamic freshman season, Darnell Washington is quite a handful at 6-foot-7 and 270 pounds, and Arik Gilbert had a stellar year at LSU before transferring to Georgia.
“It's hard to find a team that has as much talent in their tight end room,” Lanning said. “You can call them tight ends, but the reality is they’re a matchup issue as wideouts as much as they are at tight end.”
While Oregon has a bunch of new players, including 21 transfers, there's one area where the Ducks have plenty of experience.
All five starters return on the offensive line, providing some much-needed stability amid all the changes.
“It will be key that we play well, play physical,” Smart said. “You have to control the line of scrimmage and strike people to be a good football team.”
Oregon will honor Spencer Webb with a helmet sticker of his No. 4 inside a spider web.
Webb died in July after falling and striking his head during an outing at a popular swimming spot in Eugene.
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