By Sarah Lounsbury | @saraahlounsbury
Sports Capital Journalism Program
LOS ANGELES — The Georgia Bulldogs reached the pinnacle of college football in Indianapolis a year ago this week, capturing their first national championship since 1980 by defeating the Alabama Crimson Tide, 33-18. But soon after the historic accomplishment, Georgia coach Kirby Smart would face the challenge of filling an enormous void on his team.
With the conclusion of the 2021 season, 15 Georgia players exited the program to enter the National Football League draft and 13 players left the team by entering the transfer portal. It became obvious that the reigning national champions would face a rebuilding process.
One year later, the Bulldogs defied the odds in a perfect 14-0 season going into the College Football Playoff National Championship against TCU on Monday night, with the chance to become the first repeat champion since Alabama in 2012.
“I had no clue we would be at this point,” Smart said.
Smart and his coaching staff began to replace the 28 players who left after the 2021 season by signing 29 recruits from the class of 2022, nine of which were rated five-star recruits. Georgia’s group of newcomers was ranked the number three recruiting class in the nation for the 2022 cycle.
“We’re always trying to bring in the best student-athletes we can who we feel like are going to be successful in the classroom as well as on the football field,” said run game coordinator and running backs coach Dell McGee. “We want to make sure we get the right player that fits the mold that represents Georgia football.”
With one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, the Bulldogs went to work developing their newcomers and underclassmen into players capable of making an immediate impact on the field despite little to no experience playing college football. One of those players was Malaki Starks.
Starks, a defensive back from Jefferson, Ga., was one of the nine five-star recruits in the class of 2022. As a freshman, Starks started 13 of the 14 games, ranking second with 67 tackles and leading the Bulldogs in pass breakups with seven. His impressive rookie season did not go unnoticed as Starks was a finalist for the 2022 Shaun Alexander Freshman of the Year Award and was listed on the coaches’ SEC All-Freshman Team.
“He practices really hard,” said defensive back Chris Smith. “The way he approaches the game with his attitude and the amount of maturity, being as young as he is while being a freak athlete… It’s impressive.”
Sophomore defensive back Kamari Lassiter has continued his impressive college football career making an impact for the Bulldogs as an underclassman alongside Starks. Despite being a true freshman during the 2021 season, Lassiter started in all 15 games. Lassiter’s pattern of success continued into the 2022 season, starting in all 14 games and earning a season-high five tackles in Georgia’s win over Tennessee.
“He’s a dog,” said Smith. “Just the way he attacks the game and the way he approaches the game, the way he practices. He’s an all-out kind of guy. That’s what you’re going to get out of Kamari.”
Young players like Starks and Lassiter are able to contribute to Georgia’s success largely thanks to the guidance and leadership provided by the upperclassmen.
“The older guys and leaders being able to take those guys under their wing and show them the way has been essential,” said Smith. “The younger guys have been very receptive to that, making us successful.”
From the outside looking in, it appears the Bulldogs’ dominant journey to Monday night is reflective of its path to a national title in 2021. But in Smart’s mind, the 2022 season has been anything but typical.
“This time last year compared to who we were and who we are now, it couldn’t be further from the same team,” Smart said. “Just a very different mental makeup, very different physical makeup, very different path to get here. But the journey is what it’s about and these guys have done everything we’ve asked. I’ve just been so pleased with the mental makeup and character of this team.”