Georgia’s outside linebacker group might have the most-raw talent on the team. There are three former 5-star prospects — Nolan Smith, Brenton Cox and Adam Anderson — in the ranks. There’s also the No. 1 JUCO prospect in the 2019 recruiting cycle in Jermaine Johnson.
When you factor in the likes of Azeez Ojulari and Robert Beal as well, the group has a lot of potential.
But Georgia coach Kirby Smart wants to pump the brakes on the hype surrounding the group. Smart isn’t satisfied with the overall performance of the group this spring. In fact, Smart says the talent in the room might be over-hyped.
“It hasn’t been consistent,” Smart said of the group. “We’re not dominant out there like people, quote-unquote think we’re the greatest outside linebackers to ever play. We’re not getting by our tackles.”
In fairness to the group, Georgia might have the best set of starting tackles in the country with Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson. And back-ups Cade Mays and Jamaree Salyer aren’t bad either.
The group also has rarely been at full strength this spring. Johnson has missed time with an ankle injury. Cox and Beal meanwhile were arrested for marijuana possession. The players had to deal with discipline issues — the two were spotted running stadiums in full pads last Saturday — before rejoining the group.
Johnson, Cox and Beal were all back at practice on Saturday. This was the first time all three had been seen practicing with the outside linebackers since Cox and Beal’s arrests. Smart did mention all three in a positive light during his press conference.
Related: Brenton Cox and Robert Beal rebound from arrests, ready to scrimmage
Another outside linebacker, Walter Grant, has been practicing with the running backs this spring in an attempt to provide better depth at the position.
With the absences, Smith and Ojulari have taken advantage of the extended reps.
“He’s playing better,” Smart said of Ojulari last week. “Not where he needs to be, he’s got to get more physical, he’s got to go play on Andrew (Thomas) and Isaiah (Wilson). But, he’s playing a lot better because of what he did for the bowl game as opposed to just starting now.”
Smith, who was the nation’s No. 1 overall prospect in the 2019 recruiting cycle, enrolled early at Georgia to get a jumpstart on his career.
And while Smith may not be a master of the position just yet, it’s clear he’s going to be a factor for the Bulldogs.
“Nolan plays hard all the time,” Smart said. “He doesn’t always play smart but he plays with great effort and does a good job.”
Georgia also has to replace its top pass rusher from last season, as D’Andre Walker graduated. Walker picked up 7.5 sacks last season and was a terror in the SEC championship game against Alabama.
Had Walker not gotten injured, the Bulldogs likely would’ve beaten the Crimson Tide. When Walker left the game, Anderson and Cox — who were still freshmen — struggled to contain Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts.
A more fair assessment of the outside linebacker group might be that it has the highest ceiling of any position group on the team. But there’s still a long way to go for the group to get there and create the kind of negative plays Smart has spoken about this spring.
Last season, Georgia finished with just 24 sacks. If the Bulldogs want to compete for a national championship — and they do — they are going to need their outside linebackers to turn their potential into production.
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