ATHENS – Yes, the Wolf Pack is back. Most notably, the lead wolf, Lorenzo Carter.
“We’re still the Wolf Pack and everybody knows it,” Carter said after a Georgia practice earlier this week. “Before every practice we break it down and we still [say] ‘Wolf Pack on three,’ so the outside linebackers are still going to be the Wolf Pack for a minute.”
The Wolf Pack nickname goes back to the days when outside linebackers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins roamed the field for the Bulldogs. Both are playing, with great effect, in the NFL.
Jenkins, now with the New York Jets, came up with the name for the quarterback-harassing group. Carter and fellow senior outside linebacker Davin Bellamy were just cubs at the time.
Fast forward to 2017, and there is a lot of hype surrounding Georgia’s defense. That’s understandable, with 10 of 11 starters returning from one of the SEC’s top units a year ago. There are a lot of parts that indicate the Bulldogs could be able to live up to those high expectations, especially up the middle, where defensive tackle Trent Thompson, linebackers Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick, and free safety Dominick Sanders do their work.
But the most important pieces to Georgia’s defensive success this season might be those two wolves lining up on the edges of the defense. Both Carter and Bellamy had the opportunity to move on to the NFL. Their draft grades gave them pause, and the motivation to improve their stock, along with the desire to go out on a high note, brought them back to the Bulldogs.
Junior D’Andre Walker and freshman Walter Grant are front-line members of the Wolf Pack expected to roam the field this fall. Junior Keyon Brown and freshman Jaden Hunter are also in the club.
Carter, in particular, has been drawing glowing reviews for the way he has prowled Georgia’s practices.
“I tell you, if you had to pick one player on the team that I would say has improved the most, in my opinion, from last year to this year, of the guys who played a lot, [Carter] is one of those guys,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “He is playing a lot better right now than I remember last year. He’s playing more physical. I think he’s really comfortable. He’s playing at 247, 250 pounds, where last year he was 239, 240. It just seems he’s playing a lot better. I’ve been very pleased with that. His practice habits; he practices very hard every day. He deserves to play well.”
A former 5-star prospect from Norcross, Ga., Carter admitted that his practice habits might not always have been as good as the coaching staff would like.
“Yeah, practice,” Carter said with a guilty grin. “It’s been challenging at times because it’s hard to come out there in practice every day and just keep pounding and pounding and pounding. I think it’s just the bigger picture, thinking about the bigger picture and making sure that practice is way harder than the games. The approach I take every day comes from Coach Smart and the foundations they’ve built here.”
Whatever their motivation, their presence on Georgia’s defense is appreciated. Now it needs to make a difference.
The Bulldogs were proficient on that side of the ball a year ago, ranking among the top 4 in the SEC in rushing, passing and total defense. But if they are to take the next step to be included in the discussion of the truly elite units in the country, they have to be able to pressure the passer better in 2017.
Georgia had 29 quarterback sacks a year ago, which was middle of the pack in the SEC. But it was barely half of what Alabama recorded with 54.
Individually, Carter has 9.5 sacks for his career after logging 5 last season. Not bad, but not the kind of numbers projected for him when Jenkins anointed him a member of the Pack.
“I think he would be the first to say he could do some better things,” Smart said. “Scheme affects that some. There were times last year we asked him to cover a back so Roquan could rush. We asked him to mirror the quarterback. When he had to rush, he was effective, but we didn’t rush him all the time.”
In fact, Carter has been all over the place for Georgia’s defense. Fleet-footed with a tremendous wing span thanks to his 6-foot-5 frame, Carter can be found standing up at inside linebacker or occasionally in the secondary at star covering backs and tight ends.
Carter, thanks to “a lot of milk and peanut butter,” has bulked up considerably while trying to maintain that speed. He has also owned up to a serious leadership on the defense.
His teammates have noticed.
“Those guys made the decision to come back and it was a great decision,” senior linebacker Reggie Carter said. “They made that decision and have been working extremely hard ever since, both of them. And it’s been showing. I’m excited to see what the Wolf Pack can do this year, because they’ve been amazing in how they approach practice and film. They’re unbelievable leaders for our defense.”
Indeed, the leaders of the Pack head into the season opener Saturday against Appalachian State feeling good about their abilities and their place in the Bulldogs’ scheme. The Mountaineers present as good of a test as they could possibly expect, with their spread offense and exceptional run-pass option.
The Wolf Pack is howling to get started, that lead wolf in particular.
“There’s been a lot of hard work put in over the summer and through the offseason. Now’s the time where you really want to show that,” Carter said. “You want to go out there and just really let it out. … But it’s not just about me. It’s about the whole defense. So I can be the most improved, but if our defense stays the same, then that’s not what we want to do. We want to keep improving as a unit.”