Pre-spring analysis: Georgia still seeking that great nose

Tracy Rocker is entering his third year as Georgia's defensive line coach.

ATHENS — The goal for the Georgia football team should be to recruit and develop a defensive tackle who is at least as good as the man who coaches them.

It remains a fleeting goal.

Tracy Rocker, as most probably remember, was an All-American defensive tackle at Auburn in the late 1980s. That was a while ago, and Rocker will be the first to tell you he’s not in game shape anymore. But those who watched him at Georgia practices the last couple years couldn’t help but wonder.

Although Georgia’s defensive tackles haven’t been bad, they haven’t been great. In rushing defense, one of the top tangible measures of the interior line, Georgia ranked eighth in the SEC each of the past two years, and no higher than sixth since 2012. There have been too many games where Georgia has been man-handled on the line of scrimmage for extended drives.

This year, there will be new blood. Georgia lost four defensive lineman to graduation, and two of them spent most of the time inside: Chris Mayes at the nose and James DeLoach at defensive tackle. Sterling Bailey also played inside on occasion.

So who fills in? Well, Trent Thompson, the man who many thought a year ago had the potential to be as good as Rocker. We’re about to find out whether Thompson’s limited playing time last year was because he was a freshman, or something else. And by the way, there’s other young talent around to push Thompson for playing time.

Here’s a look at Georgia’s pre-spring interior defensive line situation. Note: Georgia will probably use a 4-2-5 formation enough that it warrants breaking this down into the nose and defensive tackle positions.

DEFENSIVE TACKLES

  • Returning starter: None.
  • Others returning: Trent Thompson, Soph.; DaQuan Hawkins, Soph.; Keyon Brown, R-Soph.
  • Early enrollees: Julian Rochester, Fr.
  • On the way: Michail Carter, Fr.; Tyler Clark, Fr., David Marshall, Fr.
  • Analysis: There’s always the possibility of some of the defensive ends playing inside (sophomores Chauncey Rivers and Michael Barnett are both listed over 270 pounds), but for now the above should be the most likely candidates for playing time. And it’s an extensive list, especially if you count Marshall, who’s listed as a defensive end. But at 272 pounds, he could also slide inside. Rochester, who’s 321 pounds and gets the benefit of six extra months of UGA nutrition and conditioning, should be in good shape to play tackle and nose. Hawkins wasn’t part of the main rotation last year but got some good reviews and will also get a chance, as will Clark. But obviously the big name here is Thompson, who showed some star flashes with  2.5 tackles-for-loss and half a sack in 2015.
  • Bottom line: Thompson’s blend of size (307 pounds) and athleticism makes him perfect for a defensive tackle spot in a four-man front. He could also flex out to end on some three-man fronts, or be the nose. The Albany native is going to play, it’s just a matter of how much impact he makes. After that, the next most likely to play is kind of a muddle. Give the edge to Rochester, especially because he has a head start in spring. Hawkins and Brown need to use the spring as a chance to hold off the incoming freshman.

NOSE TACKLES

  • Returning starter: None.
  • Others returning: John Atkins, Jr.
  • Early enrollees: Julian Rochester, Fr.
  • On the way: Michail Carter, Fr.; Tyler Clark, Fr.
  • Analysis: Atkins has quietly moved into a bigger role, starting three games last year. He’ll surely be the favorite to start, but at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds, the question is whether he’s got the size that Kirby Smart and Mel Tucker want in their nose. That’s where Rochester, who comes in about 20 pounds heavier, could enter the equation. So could Carter (319 pounds) and Clark (307) when they arrive this summer.
  • Bottom line: Georgia’s interior line could be boom or bust this year, given all the young talent. Much of the focus will be on the Year 2 jump made by Thompson, but Rocker’s history isn’t to hand playing time or accolades to anybody unless they’ve really earned it. After his own career, his standards are obviously high.

Next: Defensive ends

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