ATHENS – Here’s a good general rule of thumb: You’re in good football shape at a position when you return more starters than you have actual starting spots.
Such is the case for Georgia at inside linebacker. If it can be agreed that you were considered a starter if you started more than half of the previous year’s games, then Roquan Smith (10 starts), Natrez Patrick (nine starts) and Reggie Carter (eight starts) all qualify. Part of that was injury, as Patrick missed four games with a shoulder problem. Part was just some rotating. While Smith and Patrick emerged as the main two guys, Carter’s abilities and intelligence were too valuable to keep off the field as well.
The depth behind them isn’t bad either. Yes, seniors Ryne Rankin and Johnny O’Neal have moved on, but Juwan Taylor is back, a couple other players who have dabbled at inside linebacker may move there permanently, and several highly-touted recruits are on the way. Actually, one is already there.
No wonder Glenn Schumann, the wunderkind inside linebackers coach, always seems to be wearing a smile. Well, that and long sleeves and pants even when it’s 100 degrees out, but that’s a whole other matter.
The depth chart series began with the safeties.
Then we delved into some slight uncertainty at cornerback.
There was much more certainty at outside linebacker.
And now let’s look at …
- Returning starters: Natrez Patrick, Jr. and Reggie Carter, Sr.
- Others returning: Juwan Taylor, Jr.; Rashad Roundtree, Jr.; Tae Crowder, Soph.; Jaleel Laguins, Soph.
- Early enrollee: Monty Rice, Fr.
- On the way: Nate McBride, Fr.
- Analysis: Patrick emerged as a starter late in the 2015 season, when he was only a freshman, then kept it going last year, derailed only by the injury in the Kentucky game. He came back to start the bowl game. Patrick will try to use his junior season as a chance to emerge as a force, and maybe expand on the lone sack and 4.5 tackles-for-loss he had last year. Carter, meanwhile, will continue to rotate between both inside linebacker spots, where he played enough to rank eighth on the tea in tackles, despite missing two games himself with a concussion. The Mike linebacker is an important spot on the defense, basically the captain of the defense, so Georgia enters the season in great shape with three guys (including Smith) with the knowledge and experience to play that role.
- Bottom line: Patrick will start but Carter will get snaps too. And a young player (more on them in a second) will start getting groomed for a leadership role.
- Returning starters: Roquan Smith, Jr. and Carter.
- Others returning: Taylor, Roundtree, Crowder, Laguins.
- Early enrollees: Rice.
- On the way: McBride.
- Analysis: Smith wasn’t just Georgia’s leader in tackles, it wasn’t close. He had 95, while second place (Patrick) had 59. Smith will get some preseason All-SEC votes, and like Patrick will try to use this season to raise his star even higher. But the intrigue will be behind him, and that begins this spring. Rice, the surprise early enrollee after flipping from LSU, will be on campus to get a head start on McBride, who still might be a factor when he arrives this summer. Taylor, who got some second-team snaps in 2016, begins as the favorite to be the fourth guy at inside linebacker (behind those three returning starters), but there will be competition. Laguins didn’t play much as a freshman but has talent. Roundtree, who moved from safety, and Crowder, who moved from tailback, could also be intriguing options, depending on how they develop.
- Bottom line: Smith and Carter are known quantities. It’s anyone’s guess which young players emerge behind them, and who does could be important to watch for the team’s future.