ATHENS, Ga. — It used to be that coaches beamed with pride when they talked about the size of defensive line players. The more pounds the better. Three-hundred pounds, the minimum. The closer to 350 the better.
Those days are gone, at least at Georgia, and most of college football, where the proliferation of sped-up offenses has led to a need for speed and flexibility on defense.
Which is another reason you can expect a lot of snaps this season from Jonathan Ledbetter.
Yes, the rising junior actually put on weight — just a couple pounds, up to 280, according to his Twitter feed. But when Kirby Smart saw people’s reactions, he disagreed with the notion Lebetter put on weight, and meant it as a compliment.
“I think he looks better, I agree with you there,” Smart said. “I think he’s transformed some of that. But it’s not actual pounds. He’s quicker. He’s playing faster.”
What that means: Ledbetter, already one of the team’s most talented defensive linemen, now also might have the best stamina, and he might be in such good condition that it’ll be hard to come out of the game.
“He’s got the stamina to go play three-four plays in a row and go run plays down. Where some of those other guys, they can’t do that,” Smart said. “You can’t sub. (Offenses) are not going to let you sub. So how many guys can you play up front and just leave them in the game. Right now he may be the only guy that’s playing at that level.”
On the other side of it is Julian Rochester.
As a freshman last year, Rochester weighed in at 304 pounds and blended that with uncanny athleticism. The result was a 36-tackle, 2-sack season in which he started six games at defensive tackle.
“Julian really surprised me last year. I haven’t seen a big guy like that who could move like that,” senior outside linebacker Davin Bellamy said. “And with our great strength and conditioning program he’s kind of toned that body up, and he’s moving better.”
Indeed, Rochester dropped about 15 pounds in the offseason, at the request (OK, demand) of Bulldogs coaches. That put him a bit under 300 and ideally in better position to be another guy with the stamina to stay in the game when the plays are happening too quickly to sub.
But Smart isn’t as impressed yet.
“Julian’s the same guy right now that he was at the same time last year,” Smart said. “Julian’s got to improve. He’s got to work to get him in better conditioning shape. So the weight is really off the guy but he’s not really playing fast. And I think it’s really important for him to do that.”
If you go by the most recent roster and the listed weights in Georgia’s pre-Liberty Bowl media, most every defensive lineman has either lost weight or stayed about the same.
That includes the nose tackles, whose job it is to clog up the middle. They aren’t that big by old-school standards: John Atkins lost seven pounds, to 308, and DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle lost two pounds, to 318. Compare that with the excitement around the program a few years ago to have John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers weighing about 350 pounds.
Even after signing only two defensive linemen this year, Georgia has depth heading into the season. Six returning players started at least four games, plus key reserve Tyler Clark. Those seven combined for 208 tackles, 11 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss.
And yes, that includes Trent Thompson, the rising junior who isn’t participating in spring practice because of shoulder surgery and a medical issue that caused him to withdraw from classes. What is Thompson doing during practice? He’s running on the side, keeping off the pounds: He went from 309 at the end of last year to 295 in the most updated roster.
In the new world of college football, coaches want defensive linemen svelte and fast, ready to chase down the ball carrier … and stay on the field.