ATHENS – This time last year, Tray Scott was settling into his new job … at Ole Miss. The decision Scott made to leave that job after less than a month may have seemed surprising at the time, but looking back, what a different year it would have been.
Scott could have watched as his boss, Hugh Freeze, was forced to leave because of a personal scandal, as the effects of a recruiting scandal still hit the program.
Instead, Scott became the defensive line coach at Georgia, which won the SEC championship and the Rose Bowl and nearly the national championship. Yes, in retrospect, Scott did right by himself.
“It’s been amazing. Any time you have an opportunity to work at a top-tier program, you can never really turn that down,” Scott said earlier this month on media day, ahead of the National Championship Game. “My time at North Carolina and Ole Miss was amazing. But this seemed like it was just the perfect situation for me, and a good fit for me and my family. So it’s been good. Really good.”
Scott, who was at North Carolina for several years before his brief stint at Ole Miss, didn’t have any direct connections to Georgia or Kirby Smart. Scott didn’t know Smart or even defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. But Scott did know Pete Jenkins, the legendary defensive line coach who retired after last season at LSU.
Scott considers Jenkins – a Macon, Ga., native who got his start coaching high school football in Georgia – a mentor. They never worked on the same staff, but Jenkins spent several years out of college coaching, working in the private sector to train players and coaches. LSU coach Ed Orgeron has said that Jenkins’ “teaching process is the best I’ve ever seen.” And Jenkins has had a huge influence on the coaching and development of defensive linemen in college football, especially in the South.
“We come off the same tree in terms as developing defensive linemen,” said Scott, who played and began his coaching career at Arkansas Tech. “That’s what Kirby and Mel are used to. That was it. I didn’t know Kirby, I didn’t know Mel. So for this situation to happen organically, that doesn’t happen a lot. So that’s been fun.”
It also helped that Scott walked into the room he did. Georgia had upperclassmen who were experienced and talented. They didn’t rack up huge stats, but they did exactly what a good line in a 3-4 system is supposed to do: Swallow up blocks so the back of the defense can make plays, and stuff the run when the other team tries to go up the middle.
“More so than talent, these guys really want to be coached,” Scott said. “It’s amazing to figure out as good as these guys are, and as athletic as these guys are, they’re still thirsty for knowledge. That was the part that was amazing. They just wanted to get better, and progressively got better as the year went on. That’s really what helped. And oh, hey, these guys are pretty good football players.”
Scott will still have good football players in 2018 – but not quite as much experience as there was this time last year.
As we transition into Georgia’s offseason, we take a look at the changes at each position group, the incoming players, and analyze how it could play out in 2018. This week we look at, you certainly have guessed by now, the defensive line.
Key losses: Trenton Thompson (left early for NFL).
Top returners: Tyler Clark, Jr.; Malik Herring, Soph.
Newcomers: Devonte Wyatt, Soph. (enrolled); Tramel Walthour (committed).
Other contenders: Michael Barnett, Jr.
Analysis: Trenton Thompson departed for the NFL draft, and while his junior season wasn’t as strong as expected, Thompson had a better year than the stats indicated, Scott said. But someone whose strong season wasn’t overlooked was Tyler Clark, who really came on in the second half of the season and in the College Football Playoff. Clark has All-SEC potential. Herring did well in limited snaps as a freshman and should get more snaps this season. Devonte Wyatt, who spent a season at junior college, began practicing with the team during the playoffs. Tramel Walthour, while he didn’t sign in the early signing period, is expected to arrive this summer and contend for playing time. Georgia is also heavily targeting Rick Sandidge, the 4-star defensive tackle from North Carolina.
One guarantee: Clark will get a lot of buzz between now and next season.
Key losses: John Atkins (eligibility).
Top returners: Julian Rochester, Jr.; DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle, Sr.
Newcomers: Jordan Davis (committed).
Analysis: John Atkins leaves a big hole, literally and metaphorically, after a couple of seasons of being one of the most underappreciated members of the team. He started 23 games the past two seasons and will get a look from NFL teams. Atkins was basically a pure nose tackle, and his departure leaves it an open question whether the team still has one – or needs one. In the faster-paced game that it is today, the need to plant a big man in the middle isn’t as great anymore. But it still helps to have that big run stopper who swallows up blocks. Either way, Georgia will continue to play a bunch of defensive linemen, and among those who will be put in the middle of three-man fronts is Julian Rochester, who will inherit a lot of Atkins’ snaps. DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle had a quiet junior season but will get a look this spring. Jordan Davis, assuming he enrolls as planned this summer, will instantly be among the biggest players on the team (6-foot-5 and 330 pounds) and could be used as a classic nose. Wyatt could also get a look inside.
One guarantee: Starts can be overrated with defensive linemen because so many rotate in, but Rochester only started one game in 2017. He’ll have more than that in 2018.
Key losses: None
Top returners: Jonathan Ledbetter, Sr.; David Marshall, Jr.
Newcomers: Brenton Cox, Fr. (enrolled); Azeez Olujari, Fr. (signed).
Other contenders: Michail Carter, Jr.; Justin Young, Jr.
Analysis: Jonathan Ledbetter really made a showing in the playoff – a sack in the Rose Bowl and a half-sack in the National Championship Game – and could use that as a launch for a big senior season. David Marshall has flashed each of his two seasons. And now here comes Brenton Cox, the 5-star prospect who enrolled early. Cox also could get a look at outside linebacker, or move between the two spots. Olujari had knee surgery late in the high school season but is expected to be ready for the season. Michail Carter and Justin Young should also be in the mix, but it might be tough to crack the rotation at this very deep and talented spot.
One guarantee: Ledbetter was once committed to Alabama, Marshall was once committed to Auburn, and Georgia’s ability to flip both those players is rued in both of those programs. (Though somewhat happily so for Kirby Smart, who was the defensive coordinator at Alabama when Ledbetter flipped to Georgia.)
Next: Outside linebackers.