For a Georgia football team that has had trouble the last few seasons racking up sacks, it would seem the perfect time for D’Andre Walker to get a larger role. The only question is whether it solves one problem while creating another.
Walker had the second-most sacks for Georgia this season with 5.5, trailing only the great Roquan Smith. And that was with Walker starting exactly zero games. He subbed in for Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, who got more snaps, and yet Walker racked up more sacks and tackles for loss (13.5).
But sacks can be overrated, and Bellamy and Carter did so many other things well. They were good against the run, dropped into coverage when necessary, and did get pressures that forced quick throws by the quarterback. One of the keys to Georgia’s success against mobile quarterbacks this year was having contain on the outside – Brandon Wimbush at Notre Dame, Jalen Hurts of Alabama for one half, and so on – and Bellamy and Carter were a big part of that.
Now they’re off to the NFL, selling T-shirts along the way in Bellamy’s case. They leave two open spots at outside linebacker – and two obvious replacements.
There’s Walter Grant, who impressed veterans last year in the preseason. Bellamy hesitated to make the Leonard Floyd comparison, just because they wear the same number, but Bellamy made clear he was tempted. Grant ended up seeing snaps off the bench, just like Walker, finishing with 9 tackles, a half-sack and 2.5 TFL.
And there’s Walker, who has flashed often his first three seasons. As a sophomore he had 7 quarterback pressures, also in limited action. He has starred on special teams, blocking punts as a freshman and junior. He has brought energy to the game anytime he plays, but occasionally too much energy: Kirby Smart has had to sit and talk to him about his propensity to be called for penalties, usually the 15-yard kind.
Georgia ranked sixth in the SEC last season with 34 sacks, but that was helped by a strong postseason. The Bulldogs racked up 9 sacks in the two playoff games, and 3 in the SEC Championship Game.
So is it a problem not to down the quarterback more? Again, not really if you’re affecting him in other ways. A throwaway incompletion is just as good as a sack most of the time, and a rushed throw that results in an interception is even better. Plus, Bellamy and Carter got those sacks at the important times, especially Bellamy: clinching the win at Notre Dame and the sack-strip to turn the SEC Championship Game. (And the sack to seemingly clinch the national title, until, well, you know.)
Bellamy and Carter also were vocal team leaders, key cogs in a defense that helped the team to a great season. They leave physical and intangible holes. Replacing them will not be easy.
As we transition into Georgia’s offseason, we take a look at the changes at each position group, the incoming players, and analyze how it could play out in 2018. This edition we look at outside linebackers.
Key loss: Lorenzo Carter (eligibility)
Top returners: D’Andre Walker, Sr.
Newcomers: Adam Anderson, Fr.; Azeez Ojulari, Fr.
Other contenders: Robert Beal, R-Fr.; Jaleel Laguins, Jr.
Analysis: D’Andre Walker’s energy and ability to make plays is established; now we see how he does on an every-down basis. Or do we? Georgia is also still hoping to get Quay Walker and/or Otis Reese, a couple of 4-star outside linebacker prospects. If they don’t choose the Bulldogs, Adam Anderson or Azeez Ojulari could get a look at the Sam, though they may project better at the Jack. (More on that in a moment.) Beal, who arrived late last season and then redshirted, was highly regarded and has a head start on those players.
One guarantee: Georgia will go two-deep at both outside linebacker positions once again. They did it when they had two established starters in Carter and Bellamy, partly for rest but partly because the guys behind them could play. And the 2018 team also should have backups who can play.
Key loss: Davin Bellamy (eligibility)
Top returners: Walter Grant, Soph.
Newcomers: Brenton Cox, Fr.; Anderson, Ojulari.
Other contenders: Keyon Brown, Sr.
Analysis: Brenton Cox – when he’s not at defensive end – Anderson and Olujari will be given a chance to show what they can do. Cox in particular can make it interesting because he enrolled early. Either way there’s already going to be young competition for the veterans. Grant, however, has playing experience, and if he continues to develop, is a safe bet to see a lot of playing time.
One guarantee: Dan Lanning, the new outside linebackers coach, will be coaching more talent than he had at Memphis the last couple of years.
Next: Inside linebackers.