ATHENS — “Nakobe Dean” is the answer for those asking how the Georgia football defense can possibly be any better this season.

Not that the Bulldogs enter the season with any sort of entitlement of complacency after leading the nation in scoring defense and rushing defense last season while ranking No. 2 in total defense and No. 8 in pass efficiency defense.

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“The 2020 defense hasn’t done anything, we haven’t even stepped on the field yet in pads,” Dean said on a Tuesday Zoom call. “That’s all we need to say: We haven’t done anything on the field.”

Dean a sophomore inside linebacker and former 5-star recruit from Horn Lake, Miss., was just getting warmed up when the 2019 season came to an end in the Sugar Bowl. He had two tackles in the 26-14 win over the No. 7-ranked Bears, including a tackle-for-loss and a QB hurry, showing fans what the full-speed version of him looks like.

A high ankle sprain suffered in fall camp slowed Dean the first half of the 2019 season. Most of Dean’s snaps last season came on third down, where the 6-foot, 220-pounder showed of his speed and pass coverage abilities.

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This year’s version of Dean figures to look — and sound — much more complete. Calling out the plays and adjustments is part of the job at inside linebacker, and Dean said on a Tuesday Zoom call that he’s comfortable with the role.

“You’ve got to be comfortable, (because) if you’re not, and can’t be, they’ll find someone that can,” said Dean, who is projected to start alongside senior veteran Monty Rice in the middle of UGA’s 3-4 alignment.

“You have to be able to tell everyone what to do and be that vocal leader on defense.”

Dean has shaken off his shy freshman ways, confident in his knowledge of the defense and physically more developed to make plays than last season.

“I’m definitely way further ahead,” Dean said. “After going through last season, getting a whole year behind me, I think I have really learned the playbook and everything like that. It’s a great feeling.”

Dean certainly sounds more like a veteran when discussing Georgia’s level of focus and approach under fifth-year Coach Kirby Smart.

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More than once, Dean was asked about his thoughts on the schedule release. Was it something he had look forward to?

“I’m grateful to play all the teams we play, but we’ve got to focus on us, now,” Dean said. “No matter what the order of the games, I”m pretty sure we’ll prepare the same every week.

“We’ll practice hard, that’s what we do.”

Nakobe Dean and Mark Webb in fast pursuit versus Arkansas State in 2019. Perry McIntyre /UGA Sports/Dawgnation)

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