2013 Georgia Preview – Defense
CollegeFootballNews.com 2013 Preview - Georgia Bulldog Defense
Preview 2013 - Defense
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What You Need To Know: Well, that didn't work. There were a lot of individual talents on the 2012 Georgia defense, but as a unit they struggled to play consistently at a high level. Thus, the season's performance was hit or miss, especially during the first half. The defense seemed to come together a bit after the Florida win, but that likely had just as much to do with the easy competition up to the title game. Given the talent on the Bulldogs' defensive roster last year, finishing twelfth in the conference in rushing defense was simply inexcusable. And yet, Georgia was still just a stone's throw away from beating Alabama for the title. Consistency is just as important as run defense, and the Dawgs must achieve this with only "three" starters returning for 2013. Fortunately for Georgia and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, the cupboards are stocked with all the talent a coach and fan base could want. Given that Georgia's offense will be even more potent this season, its defense needs only moderate improvement – but they'll have to do it with several players still wet behind the ears. How green are they, really?
Star of the defense: Sophomore LB Jordan Jenkins
Tackles: Amerlo Herrera, 70
Sacks: Jordan Jenkins, 5
Interceptions: Damian Swann, 4
Player who has to step up and be a star: Junior NG Mike Thornton
Unsung star on the rise: Freshman DE John Taylor
Best pro prospect: Jenkins
Top three all-star candidates: 1) Jenkins, 2) DE Ray Drew, 3) CB Josh Harvey-Clemons
Strength of the defense: Talent, Athleticism
Weakness of the defense: Experience, Depth (particularly at inside linebacker)
Here's the bright light, Georgia fan: your defensive line won't count on one to two players this year as it has in the past. Rather, it will adopt a philosophy more in tune with LSU's or Alabama's, regularly dipping two or even three lines deep. A lot of this has to do with the different coaching philosophies between the departed Rodney Gardner and first year defensive line coach Chris Wilson. Wilson joins Georgia from Mississippi State, where he had been co-defensive coordinator and defensive line coach for the past three seasons.
Georgia's second team line actually played better than the first unit during the spring G-Day game, despite having to face the first team offense. It even did a decent job stopping the first team's rushing attack. Rotation will be the key to Georgia having a better run defense in 2013.
Gone are both John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. Stepping up after an impressive spring is 6-1, 290-pound redshirt junior Mike Thornton, who solidified the starting position at nose guard. The Stone Mountain, GA native played in all 14 games last season, and held off a surprising challenge by the larger JUCO transfer Chris Mayes. The 6-4, 321-pound redshirt sophomore can slide in beside Thornton and eat some space if the Bulldogs want four on the floor.
But perhaps the most intriguing player vying to start at nose is 6-4, 322-pound John Atkins – which has nothing to do with the true freshman's arrest this June for driving with only a learner's permit. With or without a driver's license, Atkins is pure talent. He enrolled early out of Hargrove Academy, and benefited with a good number of reps this spring – experience the young man needed. There still remains a lot for him to digest scheme-wise, but in a rotation defense Atkins just may get enough playing time to surpass both Thornton and Mayes by the end of the year.
Additionally, JUCO transfer Toby Johnson appears to be recovering well from his knee surgery, if doing back handsprings on campus in early July is any judge. Toby, by the way, is flipping 6-4, 305-pounds, and is, believe it or not, quite athletic.
The overall performance this spring by the tackles was enough to free up massive redshirt freshman John Taylor to play out on the end. At 6-4, 336-pounds, he possesses remarkable quickness, especially his first step. Coming out of Jenkins County, Taylor was a consensus Prep All-American who participated in the Under Armour All-American game. In time, he has all the tools necessary to develop into an All-SEC caliber lineman.
Taylor will play on the strong side behind, and learn from, the only returning starter on this unit: 6-3, 299-pound senior Garrison Smith. Smith played in all 14 games last season, starting eight, and finished with 57 tackles, including two for a loss. He had a great spring and welcomed the leadership role – the importance of which cannot be overstated.
Former Parade All-America linebacker Ray Drew moved to defensive end in 2012, and played well in the new role, appearing in 13 games and making 23 tackles along with six quarterback hurries. At 6-5, 279-pounds, the junior is about 15 pounds bigger than he was this time last season, and has retained much of his excellent athleticism. Given the rotation scheme with its promise of additional playing time, and the chip Drew should have on his shoulder by now, we expect 2013 will be Drew's coming out party.
However, as good as Drew's spring was, it was apparently not as good as redshirt sophomore Sterling Bailey's, who edged him out for the starting weak side job – at least heading into the summer. The 6-3, 282-pound end out of Gainesville, GA appeared in three games last year. All four defensive ends will get material playing time this season.
Watch Out For … musical chairs. The competition for reps/recognition is likely to continue throughout the season. This can be a good thing, in that it drives competition and keeps legs fresh…or bad, in that it seeds discontent. Everything we've heard out of Athens points to the former, for which we give Wilson a large portion of the credit.
Strength: Depth. This can be a weakness too…as in there are not enough good players to distinguish themselves from the rest. However, with Wilson as the position coach, we believe the rotation would be expected regardless. The second team outperforming the first in the spring G-Day could be a harbinger of the competition to come.
Weakness: Experience. Last year we told you it would be teams that could run. This year it is clearly experience. For example, and if you're a fan of irony, all four tackles combined for zero tackles in 2012. This situation is exacerbated by the fact that Georgia's toughest games fall come in September.
Outlook: Wilson's arrival in Athens has brought with it some fresh air, and the rotation scheme has been received quite favorably by the squad – as represented by it having one of the better improvements this spring. A schedule largely devoid of star tailbacks should also help. But while there is a lot of talent, there is painfully little experience. How little? Outside of Smith, the next seven players combined for just 24 tackles last year, with Drew accounting for 23 of them. (Thornton (0), Bailey (1), Drew (23), Mayes (0), Taylor (0), Atkins (0) and Johnson (0).)
Unit Rating: 7.5
Jarvis Jones was the leader of a defense that could not consistently play at a high level last year. Without him, Georgia loses the Florida slop-fest and perhaps even the Missouri road game. Gone, too, is fellow first round selectee Alec Ogletree, and two additional inside linebackers.
Replacing them on the inside will be 6-2, 244-pound returning starter Amerlo Herrera. The junior from College Park, GA played in all 14 games last season, starting nine, and had 70 tackles along with an interception and forced fumble. He returns to anchor the middle of the defense, and his improvement will be needed to help shore up an inexperienced front line.
Tampa's Ramik Wilson exited spring as the other starter on the inside. The 6-2, 232-pound junior can play the run or the pass equally as well, and has the range/speed to follow a play from sideline to sideline. Fortunately, both he and Herrera are good field managers. Wilson has worked his way into the starting role, and should improve further in 2013. This is critical for Georgia, as after Wilson and Herrera there is either a lot of youth or walk-ons for the middle.
To make my point, backing up Wilson and Herrera are two true freshman early enrollees: 6-1, 229-pound Reggie Carter, and 6-1, 222-pound Ryne Rankin. Carter is known for his speed, if a true freshman can be known for anything, while Rankin showed a great deal of tenacity throughout spring practice. Both will likely develop into solid players for the Bulldogs, with the operative word being "develop". Today, Wilson and Herrera must stay healthy and productive. Don't be surprised if Georgia also picks early from the remaining linebacker recruits once they show up on campus.
While Herrera is noted as the only returning starter at linebacker, true sophomore Jordan Jenkins played in all 14 games last year, including six starts. One year removed from being a consensus prep All-American, Jenkins started his Bulldogs career with 31 tackles, was second on the defense with five sacks, and also had remarkable 23 quarterback pressures. Not surprisingly, Jenkins was voted the Dawgs' Newcomer of the Year. The Hamilton, GA star had a great spring, and will take over Jones' spot on the depth chart.
Behind Jenkins at the WILL position is 6-4, 254-pound fellow sophomore Josh Dawson. Dawson's improvement this spring was noteworthy. The Tucker High SuperPrep All-American played in 13 games as a true freshman, mostly on special teams, and had multi-tackle games against both Florida Atlantic and Vanderbilt.
6-3, 219-pound Chase Vasser appeared in five games and started two before being lost for the season to shoulder surgery. In 2011, the redshirt senior played in 12 games and made three starts with 16 tackles. He was projected to be the other starter across from Jenkins, however…
Despite everyone's attempts to force 6-3, 265-pound sophomore James DeLoach to the inside, it is clear his unusual speed make him perfect for the SAM spot in Grantham's defense. DeLoach has nicely, and quickly, evolved into the starting role. He reminds me of a slightly bigger Georgian, Perry Riley of Stone Mountain, who had success playing outside linebacker for LSU before moving inside with the Washington Redskins.
6-6, 235-pound T.J. Stripling will also compete for some reps. The senior arrived in Athens with tremendous expectations before suffering a ruptured patella tendon his freshman year. He appeared in nine games in 2011, then in all 14 games last season in a reserve capacity, racking up eight tackles, a sack and a forced fumble. He had three tackles on the road against Mizzou. If Stripling is back to 100%, as he has told many around campus, he could play a key role in providing this unit with talent and experience – especially playing beside the youngsters Jenkins and Dawson at the WILL.
Watch Out For … Vasser. This is it for Chase. The redshirt senior arrived in Athens with high prep accolades and dreams of wearing the red and black. He's struggled through some injuries, but if he doesn't step around DeLoach there's no tomorrow. If he can play material minutes, that will free up Grantham to perhaps use DeLoach to back up the inside in a pinch. Vasser has the experience and leadership this defense needs, but he must get on the field.
Strength: The starters. The starters in Grantham's 3-4 defense are likely to be good-to-very good. Certainly more than capable of holding their own in the rough SEC.
Weakness: The hole in the middle. As long as Herrera and Wilson stay healthy, this is a moot issue. But how often do middle linebackers get hurt at some point during the season? After Herrera and Wilson, it's a lot of child care.
Outlook: Is the whole better than the sum of the parts? That's what Georgia has to hope for in 2013. Regardless, you usually don't get better by losing talents like Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree.
Unit Rating: 7.5
If it sounds like a broken record, that's because it is. Gone from the 2012 roster are All-American free safety Bacarri Rambo, cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith, and strong safety Shawn Williams. Together, they combined for more than 40 starts last season, and are now playing for the Kansas City Chiefs, Cincinnati Bengals, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Washington Redskins, respectively. You do not improve after losing that.
The free safety spot was versatile, former walk-on Connor Norman's to lose…and lose it the 5-10, 200-pound senior did…to true freshman Tray Matthews from Newnan, GA. The 6-0, 196-pound Matthews was a coveted prep player...a consensus 4 star recruit who played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl game. He enrolled in UGA early and walked away with Rambo's old job before spring had even arrived. Not surprisingly, Matthews was the buzz of spring practice, and is a name every Georgia fan should commit to memory. Today.
Matthews might already be the Dawgs' best defensive back, a unit that today includes 6-5, 212-pound sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons. Another U.S. Army All-America Bowl game participant, the consensus five star prep safety participated in all 14 games as a true freshman, with 14 tackles. He also finished as the defensive MVP of the spring. Both safeties are young, and Harvey-Clemons will miss the Clemson game as punishment for smoking marijuana on campus. However, both are exceptionally gifted athletes who could lessen the pain of losing Rambo and Williams.
Corey Moore will have his hands full come August trying to keep his #2 spot behind Harvey-Clemons…for that's when the 6-4, 214 junior will face the very talented JUCO transfer Shaquille Fluker from East Mississippi CC. The 6-1, 192-pound Fluker was considered by many to be the best JUCO safety in the nation last year. He has a reputation as a pounding hitter, along the mold of ex-Florida SS Major Wright, now with the Chicago Bears. He has excellent acceleration and a knack for putting himself at the right place on the field. Flucker will bait less experienced quarterback, and he will likely challenge Harvey-Clemons from day one.
5-11, 176-pound Damian Swann started all 14 games as a true sophomore, led the team with four interceptions, and returns as the clear #1 cornerback. The junior is exceptionally versatile, an excellent athlete, and has grown into this leadership role. He started one game and played in 11 as a true freshman, and he has the skills to match up against any receiver that SEC foes throw at him.
The real question facing the Georgia coaching staff is who will start across from Swann? It appears right now that answer is sophomore Sheldon Dawson, who emerged from a solid performance this spring to earn the position. However, head coach Mark Richt made it clear after the G-Day game that this position remains open for the taking.
The 5-11, 190-pound Dawson appeared in 13 games last year and has put on some bulk this offseason. Dawson plays an aggressive brand of cornerback. He'll need that confidence now that true freshman Reggie Wilkerson is out for the season, leaving redshirt sophomore Devin Bowman as the only likely backup. Wilkerson actually played a little with the first team this spring when Dawson was sidelined with an injury. The 5-11, 169-pounds, Wilkerson might have been very disciplined in terms of fundamentals, but at this point he was not particularly fast and was likely to be outmuscled but the conference's larger receivers. So a redshirt year to heal his injured knee will likely help in the long run. In Georgia's ongoing effort to recruit and then torment two way athletes, don't be surprised if at some point Wilkerson ends up playing receiver for the Dawgs.
This is the third year on campus for the 6-0, 180-pound Bowman. The Ridgeland High product appeared in 13 games last season, including one start, and had nine tackles for his effort. He comes from a family of athletes – his brother Michael played receiver for the Crimson Tide, while his brother Adarius is a receiver in the CFL. He still has to polish his game, but he has core speed, acceleration and good hands.
It's not that Georgia's staff is overlooking the upperclassman cornerbacks on the roster…they're simply being out performed by the youngsters. Speaking of teenagers, expect to see either 6-1, 181-pound Brendan Langley, or 5-10, 165-pound Shaquille Wiggins get thrown into the fire this August. Both true freshman were consensus four star prep cornerbacks…both hail from Georgia…but while Langley has the size, Wiggins might be farther along in his development. Perhaps Wiggins greatest skill is his ability to process offensive plays faster than most – however, this skill may take time to migrate to the speed of the college game.
Watch Out For … Langley and Wiggins. That, and injuries at CB. It's likely that one of these two über freshmen will need to step forward quickly this August, ala Tray Matthews, as an inexperienced, thin secondary will likely require their service early.
Strength: Starters and raw talent. All four likely starters are SEC-grade. After that, Georgia has a slew of talented players – Grantham & Co. must hope one or two of these distinguish themselves from the rest. If not…
Weakness: Depth/Experience. As with every area on Georgia's 2013 defense, there is simply not enough experience among the secondary for Richt to sleep easy at night. For example, after Swann and Dawson, all the remaining cornerbacks on the roster combine for one career start (Bowman). That's even better than caffeine.
Outlook: Just make it to October. There will be growing pains, but if the starters can stay healthy through the month of September, the schedule opens up to get some game time experience for the backups.
Unit Rating: 7.5
Really, Marshall Morgan? After the 6-3, 200-pound place kicker distinguished himself in his freshman campaign, appearing in all 14 games and going 8-for-14 on field goal attempts, the sophomore from Ft. Lauderdale, FL was arrested on June 29 on suspicion of boating under the influence of alcohol. Morgan is also underage. As per Georgia's student-athlete handbook, a first DUI arrest results in suspension from competition for 20 percent of the athlete's season; in Morgan's case, that's two games.
Operating a vehicle under the influence is never a smart decision, but with the Clemson and South Carolina games at the top of the schedule, this possible suspension looms.
In addition to setting the team record for most PATs made and attempted (63-for-67), Morgan handled nearly half of Georgia's kickoffs, and is the only scholarship placekicker on the roster. After him, the next placekicker up is either sophomore Patrick Beless or redshirt freshman Thomas Pritchard - neither of whom have ever kicked a ball for Georgia.
Collin Barber returns for his sophomore season as punter after finishing seventh in the conference with a 41.5 yard average. At 6-2, 200-pounds, Barber has the size and leg to soon make folks forget about Ray Guy award winner Drew Butler.
Malcolm Mitchell was rather pedestrian at returning kickoffs last season, although no other player stepped forward to do any better. Georgia didn't have a punt returner crack the top 70 in the nation either. Mitchell handled most of those duties along with senior receiver Rhett McGowan.
Watch Out For … the Morgan suspension drama. In what will likely be competitive contests against both Clemson and South Carolina, the kicking game just might be the difference between playing for a national championship in January, or another trip to Orlando for the Capital One Bowl.
Strength: History. Lately Georgia has done a great job finding and developing above average kickers. As long as Morgan is playing beside Barber in 2013, this tradition will continue.
Weakness: The return game. Location, location, location. Field position in the SEC is critical, and Georgia can do better in this area.
Outlook: A Tale of Two Special Teams. While Georgia has an outstanding record of late developing great kickers, the school has not consistently got the same results from its kick returns or kick coverage.
Unit Rating: 5
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