ATHENS — It’s all relative, as they say.
Take Jake Ganus. The senior linebacker was somewhat incredulous when asked how he has dealt with all the changes that have befallen him and the Georgia Bulldogs since the end of the regular season.
“I don’t know, I guess this time last year a lot worse things happened,” Ganus said after a recent practice. “I’m just happy to have a team.”
And Ganus’s team is happy to have him. Nobody could have predicted the impact he would have since he showed up last January.
At the time, he was a little known throw-in to the class of midyear enrollees. He came to Georgia from UAB, where the football program had been summarily discontinued.
Eleven months and change later, Ganus not only finished as a 12-game starter at middle linebacker, he was also the team’s leading tackler. And a week ago, he received what must’ve seemed unfathomable a year ago. The Bulldogs’ voted him as team MVP and overall captain.
“I love Jake,” said Mike Ekeler, until recently Ganus’ position coach at Georgia. “He saved us this year. Great player. Smartest player in the college game. Going to be a great pro.”
Ganus definitely came through for the Bulldogs. At the outset of preseason camp, juniors Reggie Carter and Tim Kimbrough were slated to be the starters at the two inside linebacker positions. But injuries ultimately sidelined Carter for the entire season and Ganus ended up starting all 12 games with Leonard Floyd, Kimbrough and freshman Natrez Patrick all taking turns beside him.
Ganus finished with a team-best 96 tackles and he also recorded two interceptions. At UGA’s Senior Gala on Dec. 12, he was voted the team’s defensive MVP and a permanent team captain.
It was quite a haul for a player that wasn’t here this time last year and won’t be next.
“Just from what happened to me last year at this time, then getting to Athens, then earning a starting spot, getting engaged, getting those awards, team captain, all that kind of stuff has been wild,” Ganus said. “It’s been awesome and I wouldn’t trade it for the world. It’s a year that has been a turning point in my life personally.”
Ganus hopes it represents a turning point for him professionally as well. To date he hasn’t received an invitation to a postseason all-star game, but indications are he may make a roster, at least as an alternate. And based on his success in his one and only season in the SEC, he is expected to get an NFL shot, if not a call during the draft.
“Hopefully I’ve put enough stuff on tape that I can go out there and have a good bowl game and work hard this spring and have a chance at the next level,” Ganus said.
Losing Ekeler for this final stretch of his collegiate career was tough for Ganus to take. He credits the Bulldogs’ linebackers coach of the last two years for the jump he made in productivity his senior season.
Ekeler left UGA to pursue a job as a defensive coordinator. North Texas is expected to announce his appointment any day now.
“I grew a lot under him,” Ganus said. “When I came in here, I was kind of an unorthodox linebacker. I was skinny and I played a lot of different than I do now. I didn’t use my hands, I didn’t try to get off blocks, I’d just try to run around them. It’s all about getting off blocks in this league and I learned that real fast here. He really taught me so much about how to be a good linebacker, and I think that’s a big part of my success.
“He’s definitely a guy who greatly impacted my life. He took me in this past year and made me the linebacker that I am right now. So I’ll be forever grateful for that, and we’ll definitely stay in touch.”
In the meantime, the Bulldogs’ preparations for Penn State and the TaxSlayer Bowl continue. They’ll proceed without Ekeler and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who left for Alabama.
Kevin Sherrer, who coached outside linebackers and nicklebacks, has taken over as coordinator and moved inside to coach Ganus’ position.
“They’re two different coaches,” Ganus noted. “I think every coach has their own personality. In the end, they can both get it done. They’re both very good coaches. For our position, it’s a lot about technique and stuff. Coach Sherrer and Ek both do a great job with that and Coach Sherrer has just picked it up where Ek left off.”
As for Sherrer as coordinator, Ganus likes what he’s seen so far.
“He knows everything there is to know about this defense,” Ganus said. “You can tell he’s just as knowledgeable as anybody. When we call the defense the past couple of days, there really hasn’t been much difference. The defense has done really good these past couple of days. A lot of energy, everybody’s flying around, we’ve been getting after it. It’s been fun. There’s been no let-off, no slack. It’s been good.”
As for Georgia’s future at linebacker, it looks precarious at the moment. Carter’s status after this redshirt season is unknown, and Kimbrough hasn’t been with the team during bowl workouts so far.
But Ganus said the Bulldogs’ fans should be optimistic based on what he has seen from the young players, including Patrick, Roquan Smith and Juwan Taylor.
“They’re just so awesome,” Ganus said. “Natrez, Roquan and Juwan Taylor, I think all three of those guys are just going to be phenomenal linebackers. I can’t say enough about them and how much they’ve grown over the year. I’m so excited to watch them in the future. I think they’re really coming on.”
Georgia can only hope they progress at the rate Ganus did.