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(Perry McIntyre Jr./UGA Athletics)
Brenton Cox got on the field early and often as a freshman for the Bulldogs last season. The hope is his continued development will help Georgia improve in the area of pressuring the passer.

SPRING PREVIEW: Georgia Bulldogs look for improved pass rush from star-studded cast of OLBs

Chip Towers

PRE-SPRING FOOTBALL ANALYSIS

Part XIII: The Outside Linebackers

This is Part 13 in a series breaking down and analyzing each position group for the Georgia Bulldogs in advance of spring football practice, which is scheduled to begin on March 19.

ATHENS — Dan Lanning’s salary doubled after last season, and he’s going to earn it as Georgia’s outside linebackers coach.

He is, of course, the Bulldogs’ defensive coordinator now, too. But one of his first and most important tasks in that role is going to be figuring out how to deploy his platoon of star-studded outside linebackers on a defense already teeming with depth all around.

And while Georgia is loaded with potential at the position, what it is short on is proven and experienced players. Junior Walter Grant stands as the only player among the outside linebackers with any significant starting experience having gotten the nod eight times last year. But even his spot in the lineup is not guaranteed with all the talent joining the competition this spring.

The Bulldogs signed not only the No. 1 high school outside linebacker in the country in the Class of 2019 — Nolan Smith of Savannah — but also the top junior college player in Jermaine Johnson. The 6-foot-5, 240-pound Johnson comes to UGA from Eden Praire, Minn., by way of Independence (Kan.) Community College. Those top-rated players will join a competition that includes four returnees who totaled 19 stars as recruiting prospects — three 5-stars and a 4-star.

For that reason and others we’ll enumerate here, outside linebacker is expected to be a team strength for Georgia this year. But there are no guarantees. The Bulldogs need to look no further back than the last two games of last season to realize that there’s a difference in potential and production.

Georgia lost senior D’Andre Walker to a groin injury in the third quarter of the SEC Championship Game against Alabama. Not coincidentally, the Bulldogs experienced a significant drop off in their ability to contain quarterbacks. Quarterback Jalen Hurts turned the game around for the Crimson Tide with his ability to escape the pocket and either get up field or buy time to get rid of the football. Georgia experienced the same shortcomings against Sam Ehlinger and Texas in the Sugar Bowl.

And that’s where the pressure will be on Lanning. Increasingly, college football teams are utilizing mobile quarterbacks in spread offenses. Georgia will see that early and often in 2019. So the Bulldogs will need to make sure they have their defensive edges shored up by the time they head out of spring practice.

Based on the pedigree of athlete involved in this competition, whatever players emerge on top of the depth chart ought to be worth watching this coming fall.

A closer look at the outside linebacker position:

THE OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

  • Returning starters: Walter Grant, 6-4, 245, junior.
  • Others returning: Adam Anderson, 6-5, 225, So.; Robert Beal, 6-4, 244, RSo.; Brenton Cox, 6-4, 250, So.; Azeez Ojulari, 6-3, 240, So.
  • Early enrollees: Jermaine Johnson, 6-5, 240, Jr.; Nolan Smith, 6-3, 235, Fr.
  • On the way: Unknown.
  • Analysis: They say that absence makes the heart grow fonder, and the longer D’Andre Walker has been away from Georgia, the more the Bulldogs appreciate what they had in the 6-3, 245-pound senior. Walker, who toiled behind Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy for years, quietly put together an incredible senior season. He led the Bulldogs in every category related to pressuring the passer, including QB hurries (14), sacks (7.5) and tackles for loss (11). When Walker went out in the second half of the SEC title game and Jalen Hurts entered in relief of Tua Tagovailoa, Hurts completed 7-of-9 passes for 82 yards and touchdown and ran for another 28 yards, including a 15-yard, game-winning TD. The freshman Brenton Cox logged the majority of snaps in Walker’s absence, but simply wasn’t able to replicate the Bulldogs the stout, weakside protection that Walker did. The hope is that Cox and the Bulldogs cast of high school all-stars can improve significantly to that end in a year’s time. Cox was a 5-star prospect, as were Adam Anderson and Robert Beal Jr. But it was former 4-star prospect Azeez Ojulari who stepped up in the Sugar Bowl, recording three tackles and a quarterback hurry in the loss. Meanwhile, the Bulldogs hope to see significant improvement out of Grant, who underwhelmed as a sophomore after a strong freshman campaign.
  • Bottom line: Nowhere has Georgia and coach Kirby Smart demonstrated their recruiting acumen better than in the area of outside linebackers and edge rushers. But there’s a reason for it. The Bulldogs simply haven’t pressured the passer with the consistency they need to compete at the highest level. They had only 24 sacks in 14 games last season, which ranked 84th nationally. Compare that to national champion Clemson, which had 54, and it’s evident that might be a shortcoming. If the accrued talent is as good as advertised, Georgia should make some headway in that regard in 2019. Johnson was rated the No. 1 overall JUCO prospect and obviously was recruited to make an immediate impact. But the early feedback is that Smith — the No. 1 prep recruit — is going to be hard to keep off the field. Meanwhile, the logic is that Georgia’s “ABC’s” (Anderson, Beal and Cox) will continue to improve.

UP NEXT: The competition should be fierce at cornerback as the Bulldogs look to replace a potential NFL first-rounder in Deandre Baker.

SPRING FOOTBALL PREVIEW