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Georgia football needs to do a better job of developing defensive linemen
By now you know that Georgia was very well represented at the NFL combine this past week. Georgia had 10 guys participating. Only LSU and Ohio State had more players at the combine, showing off in front of NFL scouts and decision-makers.
But for all the Georgia talent there — the latest mock drafts have both Andrew Thomas and D’Andre Swift in the first round — on the Saturday afternoon workouts, there were no Georgia players to be found. That was the day linebackers and defensive linemen were working out.
One of those positions isn’t such much of a worry, given the Bulldogs have seen the likes of Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter and D’Andre Walker all get drafted at the position in recent seasons. And Georgia had only one draft-eligible player at the linebacker position in Tae Crowder.
The pipeline also seems flush in the coming years as the likes of Monty Rice, Azeez Ojulari, Nolan Smith, Adam Anderson and Nakobe Dean all go through their college careers. The Bulldogs — who have the most drafted linebackers since 2000 — are going to be just fine at the position.
The same cannot be said for the defensive line.
In Smart’s now four years in charge of the program, only one defensive lineman has been invited to the NFL combine. That was Jonathan Ledbetter, who did not get selected in the 2019 NFL Draft. For a program as strong as Georgia that number has to be higher. By comparison, Seven Alabama defensive linemen have been drafted, as have five from Ohio State and Clemson in the past three NFL drafts.
Unlike the linebacker position this year for Georgia, the Bulldogs had plenty of candidates who could’ve been selected for the NFL combine. Georgia saw five defensive linemen graduate the program and all but one of them — Michael Barnett — was signed by Smart.
There is a strong case to be made that Tyler Clark should’ve been in Indianapolis as he did lead the Bulldogs in tackles for loss this season and proved to be a handful for opposing offenses at times. But a single defensive lineman getting a combine invite does not change the narrative.
If Georgia is going to close the gap between Clemson, Alabama and the other super-elite programs in the sport, it has to do a better job of recruiting and developing defensive line prospects.
In the past two recruiting cycles, the Bulldogs have begun to rectify the former problem, as Georgia has landed a 5-star defensive lineman in each of the past two cycles in Travon Walker and Jalen Carter. Walker more than lived up to the hype this past season, while Carter figures to be one of the more talked about freshmen going into the fall. Especially when you factor in the five defensive linemen Georgia will have to replace on the 2020 team.
As for the defensive line prospects who could be draft-eligible next year, the Bulldogs could see some in Indianapolis as a part of the 2021 NFL Combine. Julian Rochester and Malik Herring will both be seniors and have at different times shown they can be disruptive players. Strong senior campaigns should help their cases.
It’s also worth mentioning here that Jordan Davis has been at times Georgia’s most impactful defensive lineman in the past two seasons. He’s a big reason the Bulldogs gave up only two rushing touchdowns all season. He’ll be a junior that could declare for the 2021 NFL Draft. The knock against him doing so is that it’s very rare for teams to use a high selection on a player who works primarily as either a nose guard or one-technique.
For those shouting that NFL draft success doesn’t equate to college wins, there’s one area where having better or more disruptive defensive linemen does show up: tackles for loss and sacks. Georgia did make improvements in these categories last year as it ranked 46th in sacks and 60th in tackles for loss.
Those gains though still left the Bulldogs behind all four College Football Playoff teams, who ranked in the top 25 in both categories. And each of those teams had superior offenses to Georgia as well.
Naturally, it’s a chicken and the egg problem. If Georgia starts getting and developing better defensive linemen, it increases its sacks and tackles for loss numbers. That likely gets more defensive linemen invited to Indianapolis and selected in the NFL draft. This, in turn, attracts top defensive line recruits, who have an easier time of creating those disruptive negative plays.
In landing both Carter and Walker Georgia has gotten some of the top defensive line recruits it needs to create more negative plays.
But it needs more guys like Carter and Walker. Not just to create those negative plays but to also create a steady pipeline of standout defensive linemen so that there isn’t a huge drop-off when it comes time for them to go to the NFL. Alabama, Clemson and Ohio State all have that and have been able to replace elite players with other elite prospects.
The question for Georgia now is can they produce defensive linemen as they have at positions like running back, offensive line and linebacker.
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