ATHENS — Last week, I was asked to write about what I think is Georgia’s team strength headed into spring football practice. This week, I’m being asked to share what I believe is the Bulldogs’ biggest weakness.
The defense as a whole will need to reload, no doubt. But in particular, linebacker is an area of great concern for Georgia heading into 2018.
There is a pile of production — not to mention, star power — to replace across the second line of Georgia’s defense. That obviously starts with the early departure of Roquan Smith for the NFL. But it extends to each of the four linebacker positions. It could be argued that the Bulldogs got all-conference-level performances at each one in 2017.
Smith was the obvious catalyst. The 6-foot-1, 225-pound junior was the Butkus Award recipient as the nation’s top inside linebacker for good reason. Not only did he record a mind-blowing 137 tackles, but Smith also led the team in quarterback sacks (6.5) and pressures (18). Over and above that, everybody who watched knows what an impact he made on everybody else on the field. Smith’s speed and anticipation helped him get outside and force countless ball carriers to turn up field and into the defensive pursuit. His impact on the overall effectiveness of Georgia’s defense — which finished sixth in the nation in total yards (294.9 per game) and points (16.4) and eighth against the pass (168.9) — is immeasurable.
Just consider what ESPN/SEC Network analyst Greg McElroy said about Smith after watching him in the SEC Championship Game.
“If you are looking for an obscure candidate to put on your Heisman ballot, think about Roquan Smith,” he said. “I think he belongs; I mean it. You look at what he’s meant for Georgia. Really the last couple of games symbolized the importance of his production. I believe against Georgia Tech he had 12, 14, 15 tackles, that’s what they gave him. He might have had 25. They spied him on everything.”
All of us who witnessed Smith’s play this past season probably would agree he’s a once-a-decade kind of player, if not once-a-generation. So it goes without saying that any replacement is probably going to mean a drop-off in production. We don’t know that, but we’re certainly not reckless to presume.
But it goes beyond that. Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy made similar, though less dominant, contributions from their respective outside linebacker positions. People tend to focus on sack numbers, and neither Carter’s 4.5 nor Bellamy’s 5.0 get anybody particularly excited. But they were asked to do much more than that — especially Carter. They were intensely involved in controlling the run game, in which opponents managed just 126 yards per contest, and often had pass-coverage responsibilities in the flats.
Meanwhile, their big-play quotient was particularly high. Carter forced 3 fumbles and Bellamy had 2 huge ones — in the SEC Championship Game and against Notre Dame. Carter led the team with 3 fumble recoveries and also executed the game-saving field goal block in overtime against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl. They were simply difference makers in Georgia’s most meaningful games.
In the meantime, the Bulldogs also will be in transition at the “Mike,” the other inside linebacker position. Senior Reggie Carter logged the majority of time at that position, and played well. He finished with 36 tackles while starting six games and appearing in 13. He entered the season as the understudy for Natrez Patrick, but had to man the position from midseason on due to Patrick’s disciplinary suspensions.
And that’s another unanswered question heading into this spring. Will Patrick, a rising senior by eligibility, be available first for spring practice and then for the 2018 season? And if so, when? Georgia has not said whether Patrick, who underwent treatment for substance abuse and missed the Bulldogs’ last two games, will be subject to any more disciplinary suspensions.
Patrick missed four games in the middle of the 2017 season for violating Georgia’s marijuana-use policy for at least the second time and then was present in another marijuana-related incident with police the night after the Bulldogs’ SEC Championship Game victory. Coach Kirby Smart has never said what disciplinary measures if any will come as a result of that, but Patrick did not play during Georgia’s College Football Playoff run.
If Patrick is unavailable for any games in 2018, that means the Bulldogs’ will be missing players who accounted for 33 percent — or a third — of their tackles in 2017.
Now, college teams are always losing great players. It’s the cyclical nature of the game, and the departure of these young men is not unexpected. Georgia certainly has recruited well and has replacements awaiting. Monty Rice and Nate McBride are the heirs apparent inside, with several lettermen already on board and Quay Walker and Channing Tindall coming in this latest recruiting class. Same thing with Adam Anderson, Brenton Cox, Azeez Olujari and Otis Reese joining the competition with D’Andre Walker and Walter Grant at outside linebacker.
But, lest we forget, as good as Smith, Carter and Bellamy were, it took them all some time to reach the level they played at last season. And there is also some transition taking place on the defensive line, where John Atkins and Trent Thompson tied up blockers to the benefit of those who played behind them.
There will probably be some growing pains for Georgia at linebacker. The Bulldogs can only hope they get through them fast.