The Georgia Bulldog defensive line enjoyed a quietly effective 2017, plugging holes and opening opportunities for a star-studded linebacking corps. While the group lost key contributors the nucleus of a strong group returns, and that’s great news for Kirby Smart and staff.
Trenton Thompson is gone following a junior season that wasn’t as explosive as many expected, and which culminated in his going undrafted in April (Thompson signed a free agent deal with the Browns, but was recently released). Also gone is senior John Atkins, an underappreciated stalwart inside for the past several years at the nose.
And that’s it. While the Bulldog defense lost tons of talent in the linebacking corps (all four starters gone) and the secondary (three of four starters moving on) the defensive line returns much as it looked in 2017, only a year older and perhaps just a little deeper.
Junior Julian Rochester (6’5, 300 pounds) and senior DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle (6’4, 310 pounds) return at the nose. Both were productive as part of a rotation that played a lot of different guys last season. They’ll be joined by true freshman Jordan Davis (6’5, 320 pounds), who instantly becomes one of the biggest guys on the defensive front. Davis is a true 3-4 nose tackle, much like Rochester, and between them the ‘Dawgs are in pretty good shape inside.
Sophomore Devonte Wyatt (6’3, 301 pounds) could also see time at nose (especially in passing situations) but also has the versatility to contribute at defensive end after enrolling in January. Notre Dame transfer Jay Hayes is also likely to see time from day one. Junior Michael Barnett has weathered a move to the offensive line then a move back to the defensive front last season, playing in 12 games and making 2 tackles against both Kentucky and Georgia Tech. However Barnett underwent surgery this spring for a knee dislocation, and it will be interesting to see how he recovers.
Speaking of defensive ends, Georgia has a ton of them. The nature of the Bulldogs’ hybrid 3-4 system is that a lot of players with different skill sets will see time. Some defensive ends look a lot more like 4-3 defensive tackles, big enough to man up on offensive linemen and stop the run. Others are more like overgrown outside linebackers. Georgia finds itself with guys who fit both molds.
Senior Jonathan Ledbetter (6’4, 280) and junior David Marshall (6’3, 274) return as your likely starters (to the extent the term has meaning when you’re rotating 6-8 guys). Both are big, strong, and experienced, and neither is a liability either in run or pass situations. Both are likely playing their way toward an NFL future. Ledbetter may work in some at outside linebacker, especially in light of the losses experienced by the Red and Black at that position.
Junior Tyler Clark (6’4, 300) enjoyed a breakout 2017 and may be the most underrated player in this unit. Clark is strong and has a great first step, making him particularly dangerous in passing situations. Sophomore Malik Herring (6’3, 280) enjoyed a solid freshman season and will likely take on an increased profile in 2018. Joining them are juniors Michail Carter (6’4, 295) and Justin Young (6’4, 275) each of whom has played significant snaps in the past two seasons.
The wild cards in this group are freshmen Brenton Cox and Azeez Ojulari. Cox (6’5, 250 pounds) is a star in the making, whose size/speed combo will get him on the field early. As his technique and knowledge continue to develop he’ll only become more entrenched in the lineup. Ojulari (6’3, 240 pounds) may get his start at outside linebacker, but could very easily end up playing more with his hand in the dirt. Ojulari is coming off surgery in December for a torn ACL, and as a result may be a redshirt candidate.
On a defense that needs to fill big holes all over the place, the defensive front may be the spot most likely to be as good or better than it was in 2018. That’s great news for defensive line coach Tray Scott, who’s endured some speculation about his recruiting acumen (unfairly I think, but that’s another story for another day) and experience. While the Bulldogs’ veteran offensive line consistently got the better of the defense this spring, we’ve seen signs this fall of a balancing of powers. If you’re going to win the SEC, you have to win battles up front. And this unit is looking like one that should win its share. Until later . . .