Georgia’s most important players of 2017: A ‘Jolly’ good fellow

Trent Thompson-UGA
Trent Thompson helped lead the way as Georgia's defense shut down Auburn last year.

ATHENS – The first impression of Trent Thompson, at least for this reporter upon meeting him for the first time three years ago, was his waistline. Or the Georgia football player’s lack of it.

Which told me all I needed to know about why the hype was probably real.

Thompson, who was rated the No. 1 overall recruit in the country coming from Albany, Ga., in 2015, was listed at 6-foot-4 and close to 300 pounds. And yet upon closer inspection he was rather svelte. Not svelte like a wide receiver, or svelte like a linebacker. But not tipping the scales like William “Refrigerator” Perry, and that was a good thing.

The game of football is changing, with fast-paced offenses that run plays quickly and don’t run up the middle that much any more. That means defensive linemen need to be quicker and athletic, less like Refrigerator Perry and more like, well, Thompson.

Over the past two years, there have been plenty of glimpses of Thompson’s potential. On occasion he will burst through the backfield for the kind of play you don’t see often see from a defensive lineman, such as the sack at South Carolina that was 11 yards behind the line of scrimmage. The crowning moment of his career, so far, is the 3-sack game against TCU in the Liberty Bowl last Dec. 30. He earned defensive MVP, and the man nicknamed “Jolly” danced to his and his coach’s delight afterward.

The next few months were rough – and well-documented. But all signs point to Thompson having worked his way through it, as he’s re-enrolled at UGA, rehabbed well from shoulder surgery, and appears set for his junior season.

A junior season that will be very closely watched. And brings us to this entry in the series.

Reminder: This is not purely a ranking of Georgia’s best players. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2017 based on their talent, the importance of their position, the depth at their positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.

New starting center Lamont Gaillard was No. 12.

Wide receiver (it appears) Mecole Hardman came in at No. 11.

And now …

10. TRENT THOMPSON 

Junior

Defensive lineman

WHY HE’S VITAL: Because Thompson is potentially the best player on Georgia’s defense. He’s a difference maker who can line up in the middle of a three-man line or at the edge of a four- and five-man line. He tied for the team lead in sacks (5) and led in tackles for loss (9.5), and that was despite playing a little more than half the snaps and temporarily losing his starting spot midway through the season. So why isn’t Thompson higher on this list? Because the Bulldogs are so loaded on the defensive line, where junior Jonathan Ledbetter is also a potential breakout star, sophomore Julian Rochester could have a big year, sophomore David Marshall showed great promise and fifth-year senior John Atkins is very solid. You get the idea. (Let’s also mention junior DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle, sophomores Tyler Clark and Michail Carter.) It’s a very deep group, and if Thompson doesn’t have a great year or gets injured, then the defensive line could be fine anyway. That’s why Thompson is only No. 10 when it comes to “most important” status. But he makes the top 10 because he’s that good. If this list were all about pure talent, Thompson would be higher. Much higher.

FACTOID: How much has the game changed? Last year Georgia started six different defensive linemen – each started at least four games – while a seventh, Tyler Clark, played in every game. Those seven have an average weight of 296 pounds. Five years ago, Georgia had five defensive linemen start at least five games each, and those five had an average weight of 315 pounds. 

BEST CASE: Thompson has a true breakout season, approaches the 10-sack number, gets close to 75 tackles and proves a force for the defense. The defensive front seven is lifted as a result, and Georgia – which last year ranked fourth in the SEC in run defense and sixth in sacks – finishes top three in both categories.

WORST CASE: The shoulder surgery and/or the spring issues have a lingering effect, and Thompson struggles to be consistent. Georgia’s defense suffers as a result, not making that move from good to great in 2017.

FINAL WORD: Spoiler alert: Thompson will be the only defensive lineman on this list, mainly because of the depth at the position. But Thompson has the ability to, by the end of the season, have shown himself to be most vital to his team.

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