Most important players of 2016: Dogs looking for ‘Big Baby’ to grow up

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Trent Thompson was making plays early and often as a freshman last season, including in the Game 3 win over South Carolina.

ATHENS — Trent Thompson goes by all sorts of nicknames: Big Trent, Big Baby, Jolly, Jolly Nation, among others. That tends to happen when one is notably large and enormously talented.

But as Georgia embarks on the 2016 season, the Bulldogs would like to see him fully grow into those size 15-EE shoes and perhaps earn himself another label — like All-SEC or All-America.

Thompson (78) is a constant focus of attention for defensive line coach Tracy Rocker. RANDY SHAFER / SPECIAL TO AJC

Everybody believes he’s got it in him. After all, Thompson came to Georgia as a freshman last season ranked as 247Sports.com’s No. 1-rated overall recruit. And he showed glimpses last season of why that ranking might have been justified.

Despite coming behind four upperclassmen, the 6-foot-4, 308-pound freshman ended up starting six games and playing in 12 of the 13. He missed one with an ankle injury. He finished with 25 tackles, three quarterback pressures, 2.5 tackles for loss and a half-sack.

To put that into perspective, there just aren’t many freshmen that end up playing a lot on the defensive line, especially at the interior. Most of Thompson’s work came as a 3-technique tackle, though he did start the Bulldogs’ final game of the year, against Penn State in the TaxSlayer Bowl, at defensive end.

“He has a chance to be a good football player,” head coach Kirby Smart said in his decidedly understated way.

This year, Georgia has an even bigger and stronger Thompson penciled in at nose guard, where Chris Mayes started 11 of 13 games last season. But the beauty of having such an athletic down-lineman is you can play him all over the line. Thompson played all four positions last season, did this past spring and will this fall.

As ever, good defense starts on the line of scrimmage and everything begins in the middle. That’s where the Bulldogs plan to have Thompson, and that makes him a very important player for 2016.

Your requisite 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.

To date we have determined:

No. 12 was return specialist-receiver Isaiah McKenzie.

No. 11 was the place-kicker to be named in August. 

No. 10 was inside linebacker Reggie Carter.

Freshman

Defensive lineman

WHY HE’S VITAL: Georgia lost four defensive linemen to graduation after last season and, while none of those players would fall into the category of superstar, they were a highly-utilized and very productive. Between them, Sterling Bailey, Josh Dawson, James DeLoach and Chris Mayes had 25 starts last year, appeared in 51 games and recorded 120 tackles.

QUOTABLE:

“Trent, he does a really good job of using his hands and getting separation from the blocker and being able to shed him and go make a play. D-linemen, it’s hard to find guys that can get off blocks. Because of him using his hands the way he does — and he’s not perfect by any means; he’s still a work-in-progress for sure — but (defensive line) coach (Tracy) Rocker has really helped him develop some good fundamentals. And he came in with some good stuff, too, now. But he’s certainly perfecting it, and he’s making an impact. He’s starting because he deserved to start. We didn’t promise him anything in recruiting. You come in and earn it, and he did.” – former Georgia coach Mark Richt after Thompson earned his first start last season.

BEST CASE:

Thompson comes in, starts in the middle of the Bulldogs’ defensive line and picks up where he left last season. With junior John Atkins also experienced at the noseguard position, Georgia is able to move Thompson around on the line to get favorable one-on-one matchups that allow Thompson to get penetration and create some catastrophes for the opposing offense. His presence draws constant attention and allows the Bulldogs’ talented inside linebacker to make plays.

WORST CASE:

Thompson incurs an injury or continues to be dogged by the ankle issues that sidelined him for all or significant parts of a couple of games the last third of the regular season. The Bulldogs already have depth issues on the defensive line. Should Thompson end up out of the mix they would have to rely heavily on freshmen and inexperienced underclassmen, which could spell doom for the defense.

FINAL WORD:

Outside of the unpredictable possibility injury, there is nothing to suggest that Thompson won’t continue on the steep upward trajectory he has already established. Thompson has completely remade his body in the 13 months he has been on UGA’s campus. He’s still playing at around 310 pounds, but fat percentage has been dramatically decreased and his athleticism has been enhanced, as evidenced in a video from early last spring in which he is seen easily executing a 42-inch standing box jump (see below). Thompson is a star in the making.

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