After narrowly missing the National Championship Game last season, the Georgia Bulldogs opened spring practice on March 2 looking to seal the deal this year.
However, in order for the Dawgs to make it back to the SEC Championship Game for the third straight year, they need some players to step forward this spring. Sure, the offense is in great shape with the surprising return of QB Aaron Murray, but the defense must replace seven starters as well as a couple of key reserves that played major roles last fall.
With so much talent moving on to the next level, Todd Grantham’s defense has a number of questions to answer this spring. While there are plenty of gaps to fill, the biggest void is in the trenches. Not only does Georgia lose second-team All-SEC performer John Jenkins, but it also loses Kwame Geathers and Cornelius Washington who some scouting services project as a late-round pick in next month’s NFL draft. Add in the departure of Abry Jones-a major contributor until an injury derailed his 2012 campaign, and the Dawgs will be without four of their five top defensive linemen from a year ago.
So what will Georgia do to replace these players this season?
One thing that’s certain is that Garrison Smith will man one of the defensive end spots. Smith came on strong for the Bulldogs in the second half of the season, starting the final seven games. With 57 tackles, he’s the team’s second-leading returning tackler.
Unfortunately, the rest of the defensive line picture is as clear as mud.
The competition for the starting nose tackle position is wide open. Of the candidates currently listed on the depth chart, Mike Thornton has the most experience, appearing in 14 games last season while playing mostly on special teams. However, redshirt freshman John Taylor impressed coaches in practice last fall and is the only Dawg defender with the prototypical size (6’ 4” 335) of a true nose tackle. Freshman John Atkins will also get a long look as well and could end up in the rotation this fall.
Similarly, the end spot opposite Smith is also up for grabs. Ray Drew is the favorite to win the job after recording 15 stops in UGA’s final four games, but he’ll have some stiff competition from sophomore Sterling Bailey and senior Clint Kirk. Don’t be surprised to see Thornton see some snaps here as well since he played DE last season.
Regardless of who plays in the trenches for the Dawgs in the fall, it’s imperative that they control the line of scrimmage. After all, the success of a 3-4 defense depends on having a commanding presence up front to occupy two (or more) blockers, which frees up the linebackers to make plays.
And as we saw in last year’s SEC Championship Game, one play can be the difference between playing for a national championship and a trip to the Capital One Bowl.