The 2013 Georgia defense will be replacing players all over the place. But that's nowhere more true than on the defensive front, where Coach Grantham will have to replace every starter from the opening Saturday iteration of the Bulldog D, along with key reserve depth. Gone are starting nose tackle John Jenkins and his main backup Kwame Geathers. Gone are starting senior defensive ends Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington.
So who's gonna fill those large, empty shoes? At nose tackle my money's on incoming JUCO transfer and Spalding County native Chris Mayes. Here at Dawg Sports we've had our eye on Mayes for quite a while. The difference is that when we first eyeballed him in 2010 he was 295 pound high schooler who was just beginning to play the game of football. Now he's an early enrollee who tips the scales at 340 pounds and has 3 years to play 3 seasons of football.
Also keep an eye on redshirt freshman Jonathan Taylor. The 6'4, 320 pound Jenkins County native redshirted this season but has drawn glowing reviews with his work in practice. Taylor has good size but great explosiveness. He's not a 360 pound behemoth, but he's as strong or stronger than bigger nose tackles. If Mayes secures the nose spot, Taylor may end up at one of the defensive end spots.
Regardless, one of those open defensive end spots will likely be occupied by senior Garrison Smith. The 6'3, 294 pound Smith jumped into the lineup when Abry Jones suffered a season-ending injury, finishing with 57 tackles, 27 of them unassisted. I am perfectly comfortable with the notion of him remaining in that position.
A bigger question is who will start opposite Smith. The main combatants appear to be senior Mike Thornton, junior Ray Drew, and redshirt sophomore Sterling Bailey. Thornton has been a bit of a forgotten man during his extensive Bulldog career, playing some nose in the 4-3 and both nose and end at various times since the shift to the 3-4. This will be his last shot at securing a legacy in Athens.
Drew came in as one of the more hyped members of the 2012 Dream Team recruiting class. The 6'5, 284 pound Thomasville native actually tallied 23 tackles in 2012, an impressive number for a guy who many message board denizens seem convinced is washed up because he hasn't won the Heisman yet. All sarcasm aside, 2013 may be the year for Drew to move from solid contributor to featured performer.
Bailey was also a big time recruit, but so far his two seasons in the Classic City have seen him put on weight, shift from outside linebacker to defensive end, and tally a total of 1 assisted tackle. It would be great to see him step up and at least play some quality snaps in a reserve role. Spring practice should go a long way toward sorting out this particular battle, and on the bright side, even the guys who don't win starting spots should provide some quality depth. The 'Dawgs may not have a lot of starting experience returning on D. But they do have a lot of guys with playing experience who will hopefully be ready to take the reins.
Long term, the wildcards on the defensive line may be incoming freshmen John Atkins and Deandre "Moose" Johnson, who won't arrive until after spring practice concludes. As I said last year about this time, I like Johnson's physical tools, but I don't know if he's going to come in with the technique to jump into the rotation from day one. I expect him to redshirt and then enter the fray at nose tackle in 2014. The 6'4, 310 pound Atkins, however, may see time at defensive end in 2013. What are you looking for from the Bulldog defensive line this fall? Who do you expect to step up?
Until later . . .