Fri, 31 Mar 2023

Georgia defenders sound off on NFL Draft's top quarterbacks

Carolina Panthers
16 Mar 2023, 20:44 GMT+10

Augusta Stone

ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia's defensive players are able to stake a claim many can't.

The Bulldogs faced all four of the consensus top quarterbacks coming out in this year's NFL draft - Alabama's Bryce Young, Ohio State's C.J. Stroud, Florida's Anthony Richardson, and Kentucky's Will Levis. So they have thoughts.

They've beaten each of them at least once behind a defense ranked second in Division I in yards per play for 2021 and 10th in 2022. With the combination of film study, on-field play, and personal relationships (for some), members of the Bulldogs' defense could offer a unique perspective on the quarterback class following the Bulldogs' pro day on Wednesday.

Asked to rank the top four from his perspective, Georgia edge Robert Beal Jr. said his board would look like: Stroud, Young, Richardson, Levis.

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"Smooth in the pocket, honestly," Beal said about Stroud. "He probably was the best quarterback we played. He was real poised, wasn't nervous at all in the pocket. He just sat back there, had all his reads, and just made plays."

Stroud didn't count a win over the Bulldogs, though he put the defense on its heels with a breakout performance in a 42-41 2023 CFP semifinal loss for Ohio State.

Stroud totaled 348 yards on 23-of-34 passing with four touchdowns and no interceptions against UGA. But a willingness to extend plays, including a 27-yard rush, helped Stroud garner attention as an elusive runner before he headed to the draft.

"He gave it to us," cornerback Christopher Smith said. "He made a lot of big plays... a hell of a player. Great quarterback. Definitely up there with all the rest of the quarterbacks in this draft."

Cornerback Kelee Ringo said he developed a friendship with Stroud when the two participated in the 2020 All-American Bowl before heading off to college. Ringo said he's also become friends with Stroud's Buckeye teammates, who have nothing but good things to say about him.

"C.J. Stroud is a really good, talented quarterback," Ringo said. "Just how he's able to spread the field, he just targets very consistently and accurately."

Young, meanwhile, is the only quarterback of the four who beat Georgia in the last two years. He only did it once - in a 41-24 blowout win for the 2021 SEC championship - passing for 421 yards on 26-of-44 with three touchdowns and no interceptions. Young also added 40 yards and a touchdown on three rushes, taking no sacks.

"He's probably one of the best guys I've ever been around," Georgia edge Nolan Smith said of Young. "He's probably one of the best guys as far as keeping himself poised, going onto the next thing, and playing the next play that I've ever seen. I try to take some things from him to myself."

Ringo also had a glowing review of Young's personality, as he said he also grew close with Young during the 2020 All-American Bowl.

"(He's a) funny, outgoing-type person," Ringo said. "He definitely relates with a lot of different people, of course, him coming from the West Coast, just like me, and going to Alabama. It's kind of hard not to get along with those types of people."

The Bulldogs faced Young's Crimson Tide again after the conference championship in the 2022 CFP national title game, and Young had a less efficient outing in a loss to Georgia. He went 35-of-57 in the national title game for 369 yards with one touchdown against two interceptions and taking four sacks.

"Bryce Young, hell of a player as well," Smith said. "He gave it to us as well. So I'm glad we won games against both of those guys. It definitely wasn't easy at all."

Georgia saw Stroud and Young in championship settings, while Richardson and Levis were yearly rivals in the SEC East division. They played Richardson twice, with UGA winning 34-7 in 2021 and taking a 42-20 victory in 2022.

In 2021, Richardson completed 12-of-20 passes for 82 yards, no touchdowns, and two interceptions while splitting time with Emory Jones at quarterback. The following season, Richardson put up 271 yards on 18-of-37 passing with one touchdown and no interceptions, adding 19 yards on 11 runs with three sacks.

Levis went 0-2 against the Bulldogs as Kentucky's starter. He threw for 192 yards on 32-of-42 passing with two touchdowns and no interceptions in a 30-13 loss in 2021. In 2022, Levis put up 206 yards on 20-of-31 passing in a 16-6 loss, throwing one touchdown and one interception.

Ringo, projected to be an early-round selection at corner, said he couldn't rank the four and expressed that he saw good traits in each.

"They're definitely all great quarterbacks, a lot of respect for all of them," Ringo said. "Me being able to play against every single one of them actually, at the same time, man. I would definitely say that leadership sets them apart from any other quarterbacks I've seen, and how relaxed they are when there's chaos. I feel like, as a quarterback, that's one of the main things that you have to be able to display."

With the Panthers in possession of the first overall pick in this year's draft, they'll have their pick of the litter. And members of Georgia's defense appear to be impressed with the competition coming out in their class, leaving Carolina with options.

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