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Georgia begins practice and quest for a historic three-peat after a tumultuous offseason

Carson Beck
Posted at 10:19 PM, Aug 03, 2023

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — When Javon Bullard was asked about the play that might have saved Georgia's season — last season, that is — he was in no mood to talk.

He already has moved on, his focus firmly fixed on what's ahead.

“To be honest, that play happened in December,” Bullard told reporters. “If you’re still talking about it, that’s not my fault.”

That's just the sort of attitude coach Kirby Smart wants to hear from his players, and it might very well carry the Bulldogs to an accomplishment that no other school has done before, at least not in the poll era of college football.

Three straight national championships.

After a tumultuous, tragic offseason, the Bulldogs opened preseason practice Thursday on the doorstep of history, having become just the 12th team to win back-to-back titles since the founding of The Associated Press poll in 1936.

No one has pulled off a three-peat.

Georgia might not have been in this position if not for a huge hit that Bullard delivered to Ohio State's star receiver, Marvin Harrison, during last season's Peach Bowl.

Instead of Harrison making a touchdown catch that would've put the Bulldogs in a 17-point hole late in the third quarter, Bullard's crunching hit jarred the ball loose, held the Buckeyes to a field goal and knocked Harrison out of the game.

Georgia rallied in the fourth quarter for a 42-41 victory and advanced to the national championship game, where the Bulldogs demolished TCU with a record-setting 65-7 blowout.

The Ohio State faithful are still moaning about Bullard's hit, which initially was flagged as targeting but wound up being ruled a clean blow after a review of the replay.

Bullard has moved on.

“We're going into another season," he said. “That play's over, man. To be honest, I don't really have too much to say about that. It's over and done with. We're looking on and preparing ourselves for camp.”

Georgia's offseason was rocked by a high-speed crash that killed offensive lineman Devin Willock and a member of the football staff just hours after the Bulldogs celebrated their second straight championship with a parade through Athens.

The wreck led to racing and reckless driving charges against departing Georgia star Jalen Carter and revelations of multiple cases of excessive speeding and reckless driving involving other players.

Smart insisted he had not lost control of the program but acknowledged that he's struggled to persuade his players to slow down behind the wheel — even after the death of one of their own.

Star linebacker Jamon Dumas-Johnson was among those arrested for a racing incident that occurred before the fatal crash but came to light afterward.

Dumas-Johnson said he's been disciplined by Smart, without going into details, and said he hopes to set an example for his teammates.

“I'm definitely disappointed in myself, the decision I made,” Dumas-Johnson said. “I made a bad decision, but I take full responsibility for what I did.”

He doesn't think the program should be defined by its off-the-field troubles.

“I definitely don't think it's the culture that we're creating,” Dumas-Johnson said. “Just some bad choices that we're making right now. Hopefully the team will get it together.”

The biggest on-field issue facing the team heading into its quest for a three-peat is at quarterback, where the Bulldogs must settle on a replacement for the guy who played such a huge role in their two national championships, Stetson Bennett.

Carson Beck, who was Bennett's top backup, appeared to have the upper hand coming out of spring practice, but Smart has not yet settled on a starter. Brock Vandagriff took snaps with the first team throughout the spring, and Gunner Stockton is also in the mix.

“For those quarterbacks, it’s not to overwhelm themselves with results, to overwhelm themselves with the process of getting better," Smart said. "Each one of them has individual things they need to work on, but for the whole I want to see them manage the offense, understand the offense, get people lined up and execute.

“The guy that does that best in critical situations will be the guy that becomes the quarterback.”