ATHENS — Even before Brenton Cox put his name in the transfer portal, Georgia players and coaches made it very clear with how they felt about the outside linebacker room.
It had some really strong depth, with a number of highly touted prospects. But other than two newcomers in Jermaine Johnson and Nolan Smith, the group didn’t have a lot of production a season ago when the likes of Cox and Adam Anderson were already on the team.
“We have to improve some production and create some ways for those guys to take advantage of their skill-set which is fast, big, where we’ve got to get rush,” Smart said this past Friday. “The bottom line is, we don’t get the rush, it doesn’t matter what we do.”
Cox, a former 5-star prospect, did play meaningful reps a season ago, but those only really came when D’Andre Walker left the SEC championship game against Alabama. And Cox — along with the rest of Georgia’s outside linebackers — struggled mightily to contain Alabama quarterback Jalen Hurts from breaking the pocket. Hurts led Alabama on two fourth-quarter touchdown drives to get a 35-28 win.
Last season Cox finished with 20 tackles, but only 2 of them were for a loss. He also had only 1.0 sack as a freshman, with it coming against Kentucky. After UGAsports.com reported that he had been dismissed from the program, Cox was not spotted at Georgia’s practice on Monday. DawgNation confirmed that the sophomore from Stockbridge, Ga., did put his name in the transfer portal.
It wasn’t guaranteed that Cox was going to be a starter this season. Redshirt freshman Azeez Ojulari did not play in the SEC championship game but did play in the Bulldogs’ loss to Texas in the Sugar Bowl. Ojulari’s appearance in that game led to a lot of buzz this offseason. Ojulari continued to validate that hype with a strong performance during spring practice. He earned a spot on the first-team defense for the G-Day scrimmage, while Cox was relegated to the second team.
Among the other returnees, Walter Grant, Adam Anderson and Robert Beal were all jockeying for position with Cox for possible playing time.
When Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning was asked about the group, the first-year defensive coordinator mentioned all the players listed all the returning players by name, except for Cox.
“There are some guys who have had a really good camp so far,” Lanning said. “Walter Grant is someone who moved around a lot this spring and has done some really good stuff with us more fulltime this fall. Azeez Ojulari is someone who finished off last year really strong and is doing really well.
“But I don’t think you can put aside the work that Robert Beal has put in, the work Adam Anderson has done. It’s hard to just say this guy and that guy and obviously we have some newcomers we’re excited about.”
The two outside linebackers that joined the program as members of the 2019 signing class were also as highly touted as Cox. Johnson was the No. 1 overall JUCO recruit for the class, while Smith was the No. 1 overall prospect in the country.
When asked about Smith, in particular, Lanning raved about the freshman’s work ethic.
“He’s really eager to learn and he’s extremely bright and smart,” Lanning said. “He’s one of those people, he signed his signing day papers and the next day after he signed he’s asking, ‘Where’s my playbook at?’
“That’s Nolan. He’s great for our room. He motivates our guys and plays really hard. You can overcome a lot of young mistakes when you play hard and that’s what’s exciting probably about Nolan.”
So it should be very clear that without or with Cox, Georgia is loaded with unproven talent at the outside linebacker position. And with all of them competing for playing time, it was far from a sure thing that Cox was going to be a regular contributor for Georgia in 2019.
The challenge for the outside linebacker group is still the same. It will need to turn that talent into proven production on the field. For some, that production could come in defending the run, an area where Georgia struggled at times a season ago.
For others, it will mean pressuring the quarterback in obvious passing situations.
“We have a bunch of different dudes that can do a bunch of different things,” Georgia inside linebacker Monty Rice said. “It is always great, because for our third down packages if we need this kind of guy to do what Lorenzo [Carter] used to do and spot the quarterback then that is an Adam [Anderson] type thing, but really all of them can do it. We have some elite guys this year.”
Georgia does have one commitment in its 2020 class at outside linebacker, and yes he is a 5-star prospect. The Bulldogs landed a commitment from 5-star prospect Mekhail Sherman back in May. Georgia was not planning on taking another outside linebacker prospect for this class.
If that changes now, the names to watch at the position would be Donnell Harris and BJ Ojulari. Both of those prospects are of the 4-star variety. Harris is from Miami, while Ojulari — who is the younger brother of Azeez — plays for Marietta High School in Marietta, Ga.
Cox’s exit is bigger news because of his ranking as a high school prospect more so than what he had done at Georgia. The outside linebacker room is still going to be one of Georgia’s deepest position groups on the team. And with or without Cox, the room was still going to have to turn the recruiting hype into actual production.
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