ATHENS – If you were analyzing Georgia’s offense – and if you’re a resident of this state, you probably are – then you start and finish by saying it will come down to how the quarterback (whoever he is) plays.
But the defense? Not quite as easy to pin on one spot. You could probably, however, pin it to one general area: The front seven. And then to one part of that: Linebackers.
The secondary, experienced and proven, should be the backbone of Georgia’s defense in 2016. The defensive line, which lost four seniors, will be green but talented. That leaves the middle group, which also lost three starters, with the other spot not exactly settled – and the question becomes whether there’s a big dropoff or somehow an improvement.
It could really be either, which is why the play of Georgia’s four linebackers could very well dictate how good (or not good) Georgia’s defense is this season.
The spring provided some reason for optimism, but then again, the phrase “the spring provided some reason for optimism” is the most over-used expression in these kinds of stories. What tangibly did happen is that four probable starters emerged.
Each week, DawgNation will be reviewing the spring developments at each position group and looking ahead toward preseason camp. Last week it was the secondary.
Here are how the linebackers stack up right now:
SAM (OUTSIDE) LINEBACKER
- Starter: Lorenzo Carter, Jr.
- Backup: D’Andre Walker, Soph.
- Others: Shaun McGee, Jr.
- On the way: None.
- The skinny: This is the spot vacated by Leonard Floyd, and many believe Carter has the talent to also be a top 10 NFL pick. But Floyd, speaking in March, actually pointed to the other guy – we’ll get to him in a second – as having the potential to be better than Floyd. That might be more of a compliment to Davin Bellamy than a shot at Carter, and there were signs late in the spring that the coaches liked what they were seeing out of Carter. In fact, he was given one of the awards for hustle, along with Walker. It was Carter and Walker who Kirby Smart may have had in mind when he said this: “I don’t know that we’re big enough, I don’t know that we’re stout enough right now where we need to be. But we have some good athletes at those positions.”
JACK (OUTSIDE) LINEBACKER
- Starter: Davin Bellamy, Jr.
- Backup: Chuks Amaechi, Sr.
- Others: Johnny O’Neal, Sr.; Tommy Long, Sr. (walk-on).
- On the way: Chauncey Manac, Fr.; David Marshall, Fr.
- The skinny: Bellamy’s stock is pretty high right now, and not just with Floyd. After three years of being stuck behind Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and even Carter, we’re about to find out how good Bellamy can be at this level. But the coaches are likely also to try to find playing time for Amaechi, who missed the spring with an injury, but was good enough to start once last year. Then there’s Manac, who has a similar body type and game to Jenkins, and is good enough to contribute too. Marshall projects as a defensive end, but could get a look at outside linebacker too.
MIKE (INSIDE) LINEBACKER
- Starter: Reggie Carter, Jr.
- Backup: Roquan Smith, Soph.
- Others: Ryne Rankin, Sr.
- On the way: Jaleel Laguins, Fr.
- The skinny: Carter would have been a returning starter this year, but his shoulder problems caused him to take a medical redsdhirt in 2015. He’s back now, and used the spring to re-establish himself. He’s not the biggest linebacker (6-1 and 228 pounds), but he’s one of those smart guys with a nose for the football. Now all this doesn’t mean that Smith won’t play or won’t have a chance to start. He sat out the spring with the arm injury, so when healthy this preseason you never know what might happen.
WILL (INSIDE) LINEBACKER
- Starter: Natrez Patrick, Soph.
- Backup: Tim Kimbrough, Sr.
- Others: Juwan Taylor, Soph.
- On the way: Laguins
- The skinny: The only returning linebacker to start Georgia’s final game last year was Patrick. Good way to stump the band there. (Also a good way to make a dated reference, but sorry.) Patrick actually started the final two games last year, the Georgia Tech game because of the special defensive alignment, and the bowl after Kimbrough’s suspension. It actually could still be a spirited competition between Patrick and Kimbrough for this starting spot, but Patrick was consistently getting the first-team reps during the spring, and earned one of the defense’s two Most Improved awards. Meanwhile, don’t rule out Taylor pushing for playing time – Mike Ekeler, the previous ILB coach, was very high on him. Laguins joins the fray this summer.
Next up: Defensive line.