ATHENS ― Late in the 2015 season, Georgia had a starting spot open up at inside linebacker, so it turned to a highly regarded freshman who played well and used it as a lifting off point for the next season. That young inside linebacker was Natrez Patrick, who started 2 games as fellow freshman Roquan Smith rooted from the sidelines.
It seems hard to believe now, but for a time Smith, the future All-American, and Patrick, the talented but troubled inside linebacker, were 1A and 1B. Perhaps Patrick got those starts late in 2015 simply because he was the next man up at his spot, the Mike linebacker. Still, it illustrates the impact a healthy and eligible Patrick could have on Georgia’s defense in 2018.
Smith has taken his immense talents to the NFL, where he is likely to be a first-round pick. The belief in many quarters is that Smith was Georgia’s most important player in 2017 by far, a singular player who made the defense by himself, and thus the team. Patrick endured a rocky 2017 season. He was suspended for 4 games midseason, and an arrest on marijuana charges late in the year resulted in a stay in a treatment facility instead of a trip to the College Football Playoff.
Georgia also loses Reggie Carter, a fifth-year senior who started 4 games, including both the Rose Bowl and the National Championship Game in the absence of Patrick. Whether Patrick playing would have made a difference in the title game, we’ll never know. We do know, however, that Carter was a solid player, good enough to basically be a co-starter the past two seasons.
So with the departures of Smith, Carter and both outside linebackers, Georgia loses every linebacker who started in the playoffs. That’s not good.
But what if Patrick is back? That would be good. In three seasons, he has played in 30 games, started in 18, racked up 116 tackles and played against a lot of good teams.
There has been no official confirmation from the team yet, but Patrick’s lawyer said recently that Patrick is enrolled at classes this semester and expects to be with the team for the 2018 season. Nothing has been confirmed about Patrick or any discipline he could face under UGA’s drug policy. But let’s assume he’s back. That’s good.
This isn’t to say that Patrick will become the SEC Defensive Player of the Year and make Georgia just shrug off the loss of Smith. It’s just that Patrick’s experience and abilities would be a great help to a defense that loses so much from last season. Whether Patrick is back to his old self thus makes him, arguably, one of the more important players for Georgia in 2018.
But that’s another list.
As we transition into Georgia’s offseason, we take a look at the changes at each position group and the incoming players, and analyze how it could play out in 2018. This edition we look at inside linebackers.
Key loss: Reggie Carter (eligibility)
Top returners: Natrez Patrick, Sr.; Monty Rice, Soph.; Juwan Taylor, Sr.
Newcomers: Channing Tindall, Fr.
Other contenders: Nate McBride, Soph.; Jaden Hunter, Soph.
Analysis: Don’t get too hung up on the differences between the Mike and Will roles, at least for depth-chart purposes. The team will try to find its best inside linebackers and play them. And if both are available, right now the best guess is Natrez Patrick and Monty Rice would be the two best inside linebackers. Patrick is established. Rice also started 1 game (against Missouri, while Carter and Patrick were out) and finished the season with 22 tackles. Juwan Taylor also started a game, at Vanderbilt, and finished the season with 24 tackles. Channing Tindall, whom Georgia signed in December, is not an early enrollee but could enter the conversation when he arrives this summer.
One guarantee: The conversation will include a lot of players. Patrick is the only returning player who is established, and after him, it’s close to wide open.
Key loss: Roquan Smith (NFL draft)
Top returners: Tae Crowder, Jr.
Other contenders: McBride, Hunter
Analysis: Tae Crowder is a pretty interesting case. He was a late addition to the signing class in 2015 – as a tailback, where he didn’t last long. But he’s found something at inside linebacker, and he played in the National Championship Game. And, of course, who can forget his squib-kick catch in the Rose Bowl, which established him as part of Georgia lore. So it’ll be interesting to see how long a look Crowder gets this spring. As for the other players, McBride entered 2017 with a lot of hype but played mostly on special teams, thanks to the crowded depth chart ahead of him. Hunter played in only the season opener, so while we list him as a sophomore, don’t rule out the team seeking a redshirt for him. Anyway, as stated earlier, the team likely will find its two best inside linebackers and fit them to each role, and while a couple of players might have an early lead, it’s not a huge one.
One guarantee: Georgia can’t replace Roquan Smith and won’t try to. It will just hope that the inside linebackers are good enough to do their part to keep the defense on solid footing.
Next: Defensive backs.