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Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning likes what he has seen out of outside linebacker Jermaine Johnson (11) so far in spring camp.

Georgia’s Kirby Smart thinks new OLBs can help Bulldogs ‘create some havoc’ on defense

Chip Towers

ATHENS — There are a lot of concerns on the defensive side of the ball for Georgia, especially when the discussion moves to the defensive front. But there’s also a lot to be excited about, and coach Kirby Smart didn’t bother to quell his enthusiasm much when he was asked Tuesday about a couple of the Bulldogs’ highly-recruited outside linebackers.

Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson both came to UGA rated among the top players at their position on their respective levels. Smith, a Savannah native who attended IMG Academy, was a consensus 5-star signee and No. 1 recruit in the country per 247Sports.com. Johnson was regarded as the No. 1 junior college prospect in the nation by PrepStar Magazine based on his work at Independence (Kan.) Community College.

Georgia football-Nolan Smith-Kirby Smart likes 'flashes' he's seen from new outside linebackers-Georgia Bulldogs
Freshman outside linebacker Nolan Smith made ‘a huge hit’ in Tuesday’s practice that caught the attention of coach Kirby Smart.

Smart said both outside linebacker/edge rushers have “flashed” enough through what’s has been just four spring practices so far to get him and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning excited about their potential.

“I’ve seen hunger out of both of those guys,” Smart said. “They don’t know exactly what to do yet but, man, they do it hard and there’s something to be said for that.”

The Bulldogs have had only four practices so far, but the last two have been in full pads, and that happens to be when Smith and Johnson have gained notice.

“Nolan has flashed some plays,” Smart said the 6-foot-3, 235-pound Savannah native. “He made a hell of a hit today and a really good play. … Jermaine has been the same way. We call them ‘Superman Plays.’ You look out there and go, ‘Man, who is that guy? What is that jersey number?’ But then they’re lost some, too.”

That’s particularly good news for a Georgia defense that has made no secret that its primary initiative in 2019 is to show significant improvement in the area of “havoc plays.” Those can be anything from quarterback sacks and pressures, to tackles for loss to fumbles, interceptions and deflections.

The Bulldogs were among the worst in the country in that regard that season. Smart and Georgia’s defensive coaches consulted some of the nation’s best teams at producing havoc plays in the offseason and are trying to implement some of those concepts this spring.

“We just have more competition (on defense), so I think that allows us to create more havoc,” Smart said. “Now, some of that is scheme. So you go meet with five teams that were in the top 20 in creating tackles for a loss and say, ‘how do you do it?’ You start learning that and try to put in some things they do. We’re trying to do that, too.”

Georgia already had a strong crop of young outside linebackers returning who played extensively as freshmen last season, including Brenton Cox, Adam Anderson and Azeez Ojulari. But Smith and Johnson — who grew from 6-4 to 6-6 and from 213 pounds to 240 during junior college — are showing the Bulldogs they might be able create some havoc, too.

That’s coming primarily in the form of effort.

“We’re going to play kids at the University of Georgia that give effort and play hard and do the right things and those two guys, man, they play hard,” Smart said. “Now they don’t know what they’re doing yet, but that’s our job. That’s our job. I’m very thankful that they’re here 15 practices.  I’m fired up to coach those two guys because I’m excited about what they’re going to do to the guys in front of them from a pushing standpoint.”