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Next man up: opt-outs and fill-ins

UGASports has confirmed that as many as seven current Bulldogs will decline Georgia's bowl opportunity, with more names possibly coming. They'll turn their attention to the next phase in their football lives: prepping for the NFL combine and all-star games.

The question must be asked: Will Georgia have enough capable replacements to play in its upcoming bowl?

At approximately 2:30 on Sunday, the Bulldogs are expected to learn if they've been selected for either the Orange, Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl or Cotton Bowl. Their destination will be determined by the College Football Playoff Committee, after Saturday’s championships and a handful of regular-season games are complete.

Earlier this week, head coach Kirby Smart spoke about the reasons to finish the season strong.

“I think it’s important for them that they finish off with a really good bowl game and a chance to finish in the Top 10, maybe higher,” Smart said Monday. “It’s a chance to go to a New Year’s Six bowl for four consecutive years. A chance to tie or break the winning record of any senior class to play at Georgia. There’s a lot there left to play for. The large portion of our team is still going to be back for the following year. They’re working on becoming better at what they do.”

Right now, here's what we know:

Friday morning, UGASports broke the news that linebacker Monty Rice, tight end Tre’ McKitty, and cornerback D.J. Daniel all intend to skip the game to start preparing for the NFL Draft and their appearance in the Senior Bowl, set for Jan. 30 in Mobile, Ala.

Earlier this week, Jay Johnson, the father of outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson, said his son intended to enter the NCAA transfer portal.

These four will not be alone.

Friday afternoon, UGASports also broke the news that safety Richard LeCounte along with
fellow defensive backs Mark Webb and Eric Stokes also plan to sit out the upcoming bowl. Offensive lineman Ben Cleveland is expected to do the same. LeCounte, Webb, and Cleveland are each scheduled to play in the Senior Bowl, along with Rice, McKitty, and Webb. Defensive end Malik Herring is the seventh Bulldog set to play in the game. There has been no indication of whether or not he intends to opt out.

“The best value they can get is to go as high as possible in the draft which ensures longevity in the NFL. That’s the ultimate factor—how long can you stay up there. You can stay up there longer the higher you are picked,” Smart said. We do a good job educating them on it. We have a lot of people on our staff that are involved in it. I reach out to a lot of people in the NFL organizations, general managers, to get information. At the end of the day it’s the kids decision, and we are going to support them in whatever they decide to do.”

But what happens next?

Those are the questions Smart and his staff now must answer as they look for replacements ahead of the team’s upcoming bowl.

Let's take a look at what they might do:

Right guard: If Cleveland doesn't play, the Bulldogs could go several ways. The first option will depend on whether or not Trey Hill is able to play, after recently undergoing procedures on both his knees. If Hill can go, then look for Warren Ericson to slide over to right guard, the position he started in last year’s Sugar Bowl against Baylor.

However, if Ericson has to remain at center in the absence of Hill, look for true freshmen Tate Ratledge, Sedrick Van Pran-Granger, Clay Webb or perhaps even Devin Willock to receive an opportunity. Willock was repping there in a recent walk-through.

Inside linebacker: The Bulldogs will miss Rice’s leadership, but there's no shortage of players to jump in the lineup. Channing Tindall and Quay Walker have both played extensively, and there are also redshirt freshman Rian Davis and senior Nate McBride who could take snaps.

Safety: This could be interesting. The Bulldogs have already played without LeCounte for the past four games after his concussion and rib injuries, suffered as a result of a motor bike accident back on Halloween night. Christopher Smith has taken most of his reps, until his injury two weeks ago at Missouri. The mishap left Latavious Brini to step in. True freshman Major Burns also saw extensive action, and would be expected to do so again and play opposite Lewis Cine.

Both Brini and Burns would also presume to step in for the absent Webb, who also backs up Tyrique Stevenson at Star.

Cornerback: If junior Tyson Campbell decides to join Daniel and Stokes and opt out, that would leave the Bulldogs with a brand new set of starting corners for their bowl.

Freshman Jalen Kimber has not played for two straight games due to injury, but if he's healthy, he'd almost certainly step into the lineup. Seldom-used Ameer Speed and perhaps even true freshman Daran Branch could also see some time. Tyrique Stevenson is likely to play one corner spot and Branch could see his first extensive playing time.

Tight end: True freshmen Darnell Washington and junior John FitzPatrick have already played many snaps, and would see even more reps. Redshirt freshman Brett Seither would also be in line for additional reps. The Bulldogs have redshirt freshman Ryland Goede as well, but he's currently out due to injury.

“We like to educate them. We like to encourage them, but we also want people to realized their dreams and opportunities,” Smart said. “I feel like if you do a good job with your culture throughout the time you are here and you educate them well on it, they have to have a reason to want to leave and go. Maybe that is financial for their family, but long-term financially we educate them.”

Could Devin Willock be an option on the offensive line?
Could Devin Willock be an option on the offensive line? (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports Communicatios)