The 'Dawgs lose a lot from the 2012 iteration of the defensive line. Gone are nose tackles Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins, along with ends Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington. That's a lot of middle filling and pass rushing out the door. Heck, even our longtime defensive line coach is now wandering around east Alabama. So the question arises: who's going to fill their shoes? I'm glad you asked.
New Coach, New Attitude?
Gone is Rodney Garner, a key holdover from the Donnan era who helped ease Mark Richt's transition in the Classic City, and whose recruiting acumen had long been extolled as a virtue. But in recent years Garner's unit has underperformed relative to talent, and rumblings began to leak out that his recruiting zeal had slipped.
Enter former Mississippi State defensive coordinator Chris Wilson. Wilson has already made quite a splash on the recruiting trail, bringing in a unit that is one or two key cogs away from being perhaps the best D Line class in the nation. What remains to be seen is whether he can translate that over to the playing field. At a minimum, I'd like to think that the combination of Wilson's desire to prove himself and his young unit's desire to do the same will yield a hungry bunch.
Versatility Is The Name Of The Game
A solid half of the players along the defensive front appears set to cross train at both end and nose. Garrison Smith and Mike Thornton are the (relatively) veteran leaders. The 6'3, 297 pound Smith will likely start at one defensive end spot. The senior has appeared in all fourteen Bulldog football games in each of the past twoseasons, making a combined ten starts. He's also the defense's leading returning tackler from 2012, having racked up 57 tackles last season. He's played some nose tackle as well, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him reprise that role, especially on third down.
Thornton is perhaps a bit undersized for a 3-4 nose at 6'1, 302 pounds. But he's strong, quick and plays with great leverage. Will he hold onto the starting spot in the middle? Only time will tell. I do know that the last Bulldog nose of comparable size, current Baltimore Raven Deangelo Tyson, struggled at times against the run. We'll just have to see how Thornton does against frequent double teams in similar duty.
Another option for Coach Wilson in the middle is 6'4, 335 pound redshirt freshman John Taylor. Taylor impressed this spring as he appeared to be catching on to the Bulldog schemes. The Jenkins County product has prototypical nose tackle size. But he also has the quickness and low center of gravity to play end (there's that versatility thing again). Expect to see him up and down the line of scrimmage.
Something To Prove
Ray Drew has been a fan favorite since arriving on campus as a 5 star, consensus top 20 national recruit as part of the 2011 "Dream Team." He contributed during 2012, but entering his junior season it's safe to say that the future is now for Drew.
The same could likely be said for redshirt sophomore Sterling Bailey. Bailey also came in as a 5 star prospect from East Hall High, but hasn't really made a 5 star impact in the Classic City (he appeared in only three contests during the 2012 season). At least not yet. The 6'3, 295 pound Bailey is the odds on favorite to start at the end spot opposite Garrison Smith, but Drew will almost certainly see a lot of time as well.
Here Come The New Guys
Keep an eye on JUCO transfer and Spalding County product Chris Mayes. Most Bulldog fans have never seen the 6'4, 320 pounder. Let me tell you, he looks like an NFL defensive lineman. Dude is huge, not in a tubby sort of way, but in a brick wall with appendages kind of way. He still has a ways to go in terms of technique, and it remains to be seen if he has the motor and aggressiveness to compete every snap in the SEC. But Mayes has all the tools to be a star by the end of 2013.
Another newcomer coming in with more accolades is 6'4, 305 JUCO transfer Toby Johnson. Johnson is coming off of knee surgery, but looks plenty healthy to me. And he's not the only big Johnson joining the rotation. Newnan native Deandre Johnson got to campus early and will vie for snaps in what is obviously a pretty crowded house. Johnson projects as a nose tackle long term, though as with all of these guys seeing him at end shouldn't be a surprise.
I also like former Thomson standout John Atkins, who arrives in Athens after a year at prep school. Atkins has great feet for a big man and will likely see action at defensive end. At 6'4, 322 pounds, he's also got the size to play inside if necessary. Atkins is another guy who has to master the schemes, but has all the physical tools to be an All-SEC defensive lineman and ultimately play on Sundays.
Finally, don't be entirely surprised to see #53, senior walk-on Clint Kirk, getting snaps at least on special teams if not in the every game rotation at defensive end. The 6'3, 275 pound former Buford Wolf sits third on the depth chart at end for the moment. That could change if in fact Josh Dawson, cross training at end and outside linebacker, spends more time with his hand in the dirt. Now that the 6'4 sophomore has grown to a healthy 275 pounds, that seems likely.
The Bottom Line
The Georgia Bulldogs have a lot of guys vying for snaps along the defensive front, and almost every one was a heralded prospect who everyone expects to do great things. But then the same could have been said last year for the departed Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins, who began the year with NFL first round hype and then spent much of the season skating backwards and giving up chunks of yardage.
That's why I don't think the key to the success or failure of this unit is found among the players on the field. I know they're talented. I know they're deep. The variable is on the sideline in the person of Chris Wilson, who'll either have his young charges ready to go for a grueling early slate, or have to explain why they aren't. Good luck, coach. Until later . . .