ATHENS – It hasn’t been hard over the past nine months to read between the lines on Lorenzo Carter, Georgia’s uber-talented but under-sacking outside linebacker.
During preseason last year, amid all the talk that Leonard Floyd would move to inside linebacker in order to get Carter in the starting lineup, Carter was instead demoted to second team during one practice because, as Carter himself admitted, “(Jeremy) Pruitt was mad at me.”
Then, after Carter was asked if he was okay with sitting, he replied: “Yeah, I’m cool with being fresh. Fresh legs mean more sacks. More sacks mean more money.” Carter then was held sack-less last season, when Bellamy did in fact get more playing time.
So this spring rolls around, and new head coach Kirby Smart mentions that the staff has challenged Carter to be physical, and also that “he’s one of those guys you have to push and challenge all the time because he’ll relax on you.”
After all that, a funny thing then happened on the way to writing the “Lorenzo Carter doesn’t work hard enough” story: As spring practice ended, Carter was one of three defensive players awarded a Hustle Award.
That said a lot: It’s one thing for Carter to be working hard, it’s another thing for the coaches to award him for it. It was almost like saying: Problem fixed.
It would help immensely if that was true. One of the underplayed strengths of last year’s defense, because they didn’t put up huge sack numbers, was the pass rushing of Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, who went on to be first and third-round picks. Now it’s left to Bellamy and Carter to replace them. A bit of pressure, but both have fairly happy-go-lucky personalities, so that shouldn’t be the issue.
Production will be, along with leadership.
“It’s new for a lot of us having to be in this position,” Bellamy said in spring.
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.
And that brings us to …
8. DAVIN BELLAMY AND LORENZO CARTER
WHY THEY’RE VITAL: Last year, this very list had Floyd, Jenkins and Carter together at No. 7. It turned out to just be Floyd and Jenkins, but you could argue they should have been much higher on the list. Smart has notably downplayed last year’s Georgia secondary (which led the nation in pass defense) by saying that it was “protected” by Floyd and Jenkins’ pass rush skills. Well, those two guys are gone, but Bellamy and Carter have the upside to be just as good. Floyd, in fact, said Bellamy could be “better than me.” And we all know about Carter’s five-star talent. So just imagine if the two play up to their potential this year: Not only does it help the pass rush and pass defense, but it allows Georgia’s coaches to bring the younger outside linebackers along slowly. Sophomore D’Andre Waler, and freshmen David Marshall and Chauncey Manac in particular have a chance to be very good down the line. It would be an immense help to the program for them to see Carter and Bellamy picking right up where Floyd and Jenkins left.
QUOTABLE: “It was a learning process; I wouldn’t call it a slump. … I played behind a first-rounder. I have to learn. It’s a learning process, the game of football, especially on the highest level, the SEC. You can make plays but you just have to learn. It’s a grown-man league. You’ve got to be ready.” – Carter, during spring practice, on his sophomore season.
BEST CASE: Carter and Bellamy are each capable of reaching 10 sacks, but there’s only so many to go around, so let’s say combining for 15 sacks and 35 tackles-for-loss is a good baseline. Don’t get too hung up on those numbers, though. Quarterback pressures can be just as important – Floyd and Jenkins combined for 27 last year – and the earlier in the season the better. Sending a message against North Carolina would lead future opponents to build their gameplan around a strong Georgia pass rush. That would also, in addition to helping the secondary, allow the young front seven more room to concentrate on the run – which was the real weak point of this defense last year.
WORST CASE: The drop-off from Floyd and Jenkins proves steep. Bellamy proves limited and Carter’s talent and drive come into question. It has a ripple effect on the rest of the defense, which takes a major step back.
FINAL WORD: It’s quite possible that Carter just needed the guarantee of playing time to get the fire going. He wouldn’t be the first person to get overly comfortable while he waited for his chance. It’s here now, and along with whether Floyd is right about Bellamy, it will make for a fascinating watch.