ATHENS – Reggie Carter is entering his fourth season on the Georgia football team. He’s started one solitary game, and it was because of an equipment malfunction.
Midway through 2013, in Carter’s true freshman season, starting inside linebacker Ramik Wilson was about to take the field against Missouri when Wilson realized he didn’t have on a technical piece of equipment that players refer to as a “helmet.” So while Wilson looked around for it, coaches sent in Carter, and after a couple plays he came off the field for Wilson.
Carter, at the time, was pushing Wilson for the starting spot, and thus a future of much playing time seemed ahead. But while he’s had some strong games off the bench – five tackles against Florida in 2014, and four tackles against Clemson the same year – he’s yet to assume the role of starter at one of Georgia’s two inside linebacker spots.
He was set to do that last year, when he and Tim Kimbrough appeared on this list together, at No. 10. There was some talk about a kid named Jake Ganus, who had transferred over from UAB for his senior year. But if Ganus pushed anybody for a spot it was supposed to be Kimbrough. And that’s the way it would’ve played out, if not for Carter’s shoulder.
Carter hurt it in preseason practice, missed the season opener, then came off the bench in Week 2 at Vanderbilt, only to have the injury flare up again the next week, and that was it. He eventually had surgery and took a redshirt.
So now we enter Carter’s fourth year. Ganus is gone after his whirlwind tour at Georgia. Kimbrough is also back after a suspension for the bowl game. Natrez Patrick, who started the final two games last season, is highly thought of as he enters his sophomore season. And there’s still the immensely talented Roquan Smith, not to mention Juwan Taylor.
Where does this leave Carter? Back on this list, that’s where.
Reminder: This is not a ranking of Georgia’s best players, so to speak. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success in 2016 based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at certain positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
Which brings us to …
10. REGGIE CARTER
WHY HE’S VITAL: There’s been no proclamation, and there’s no official depth chart, but Carter certainly seemed to earn one of the two starting spots with a strong spring. Patrick and Carter were with the first-team defense on G-Day. So why not lump Carter with Patrick, or even with Kimbrough? Because Carter offers a skill set and experience that, if he can stay healthy and play up to his position, will act as a stabilizing force on what is a very green front seven. Carter isn’t huge (he’s listed at 6-1 and 228 pounds) but he’s known for his speed, tackling ability and intangibles: leadership, smarts and nose for the ball. If Carter can be the captain of the front seven and a dependable run stopper, that will be an immense help to Georgia’s entire defense.
QUOTABLE: “I’ve been pleased with Reggie. He doesn’t seem to have any instability in his shoulder. He’s not holding back, not playing tentative, for a guy that went through that shoulder surgery.” – Kirby Smart, during spring practice
BEST CASE: Carter wraps up the starting spot, then brings leadership and stability to the front seven throughout the season. He matches or comes close to Ganus’ numbers last year (102 tackles, five tackles for loss, one sack), and helps Georgia’s run defense improve, after ranking eighth in the SEC last year.
WORST CASE: Either the injury bug returns, or Carter doesn’t end up being an asset in a full-time role. Georgia is forced to rely on less experienced players at inside linebacker, and it has a ripple effect on the rest of the defense.
FINAL WORD: Georgia’s defense, and inside linebacker spots, could still be fine even without Carter. Witness last year’s ranking. But will Patrick, Kimbrough or Smith turn out to be as productive as Ganus? Maybe, but it’s easier to envision Carter emerging as the young front seven’s much-needed leader.