ATHENS – Two years ago, prior to his first season as Georgia’s defensive line coach, Tracy Rocker was kidding around with the media and asked: “Any of you guys have eligibility?” Everyone had a good laugh and moved on.
This preseason, if Rocker were to meet us again, he’d say: “Uh, but seriously, any of you guys available? Maybe know anyone?”
It was already going to be an, uh, interesting year when Rocker knew he was losing four seniors off last year’s defensive line. Sterling Bailey, Josh Dawson, Chris Mayes and James DeLoach were steady, though not spectacular, contributors. Most importantly, they were big, and they were experienced, and now they are gone.
Rocker was ready for that. What he wasn’t ready for was rising sophomore Chauncey Rivers being tossed from the team after a third marijuana-related arrest. And he also wasn’t ready for sophomore Jonathan Ledbetter, a near-certain starter, to be suspended at least two games, probably more, after two alcohol-related arrests. And he also still doesn’t know – or at least we don’t know – whether Julian Rochester will be suspended for the BB gun incident, and if so for how many games.
(For the record: This reporter has eligibility and is 6-foot-2, but is only 195 pounds and his arms got tired the writing first four paragraphs of this post, so handling a 330-pound offensive tackle would be dicey.)
In the long run, Georgia’s defensive line should be fine. It still has ultra-talented Trent Thompson, who could become a star this year. And like the rest of the defense, it has the two strong recruiting years of Jeremy Pruitt’s defensive staff to lean on. A lot of good young talent will be on hand.
Some guys will just have to play quicker than expected.
With Georgia one week from kicking off practice, we’ve examined the depth charts and made predictions on:
So now, on to …
- Returning starter: None.
- Top candidate: Jonathan Ledbetter, Soph.
- Top competition: Michael Barnett, Soph.; Justin Young, R-Fr.
- The rest: David Marshall, Fr.; Chauncey Manac, Fr. (Both listed as outside linebackers primarily.)
- The skinny: Ledbetter, as mentioned earlier, was all set to be the starter before his troubles. Now it’s likely to mean more snaps for Barnett and Young, with freshman David Marshall, slated to open at outside linebacker, perhaps flexing down as well in some packages. Manac could too. You’re also likely, in some alignments, to see Trent Thompson and some other lithe interior linemen be used on the edge. Until Ledbetter returns, a lot of options will be on the table.
- Prediction: Barnett edges out Young for the first-team spot while Ledbetter is out. But don’t be shocked if Georgia gets creative in its alignments, ending up with three interior linemen as the actual starters, or two interior linemen plus an OLB who flexes down. It’ll be up to Barnett and Young to prevent that from happening by playing well in the preseason.
- Returning starter: Trent Thompson, Soph. (Started six games in 2015).
- Top competition: DaQuan Hawkins, Soph. Julian Rochester, Fr.
- The rest: Tyler Clark, Fr.; Michail Carter, Fr.; Alex Essex, Soph. (walk-on).
- The skinny: At least nothing happened to Thompson in the offseason. And yes, maybe that’s jinxing him, but whatever, the point is that for all that the D-line suffered, its best player is still set to be out there against North Carolina. Hawkins also has promise. Rochester would be in line to benefit from the attrition and suspensions – but he might himself be suspended. So all that could open up chances right away for Clark and Carter.
- Prediction: Thompson starts against North Carolina. Whoa, goin’ out on a limb there, Emerson! OK, a further prediction: Hawkins gets a lot of snaps against North Carolina.
- Returning starter: John Atkins, Jr. (Started three games in 2015.)
- Top competition: Hawkins, Rochester.
- The rest: Clark, Carter, Thompson.
- The skinny: For a few years, Atkins has been Verging on Emerging (which, with apologies to Dave Barry would be a good name for a band.) This year Atkins, after sharing time with older players, will get his chance. After Thompson, he’s the D-lineman most likely to start and play a lot. But unlike Thompson, there hasn’t been much hype for Atkins, and it’s unclear what to expect out of him in a prominent role. Can the 300-pounder be a big run stuffer? Can he get in the backfield on passing downs? Hawkins, who is also around 300 pounds, will also see time here, as will Rochester, who at 327 pounds is the heaviest D-lineman, at least on paper. (The heaviest players, period, are 370-pound offensive lineman Solomon Kindley, 346-pound offensive lineman Sam Madden and 345-pound Ben Cleveland. Don’t look for any of them to be switched to the defensive line … but you never know.)
- Prediction: Atkins starts, and Hawkins also gets a lot of playing time on the interior, with Thompson moving out to end in many alignments. Then, if Georgia survives until Ledbetter’s return, it should suddenly have a seemingly deep unit … unless injuries intervene.
Next: Outside linebackers