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Dan Lanning will be looking to get a lot out of his outside linebackers in 2020.

Dan Lanning, outside linebackers to determine the ceiling on Georgia’s 2020 defense

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Outside linebackers to be the key of Georgia defense

From a talent perspective, there isn’t a more stacked position group than the outside linebacker room. From a statistical standpoint though, there might not be a more underwhelming on than the very same group.

A season ago, the Bulldogs managed just 31.0 sacks and 60.0 tackles for loss, ranking 46th and 60th in the country respectively. While Georgia’s defense was great a season ago, leading the country in scoring defense and rushing defense, it was not elite in these two categories.

And each of the four teams to make the College Football Playoff ranked in the top-25  in both categories. Even though just about everyone would agree Georgia had a superior defense to Oklahoma and LSU over the course of the year, it’s one area where those teams were better than Georgia.

The game against LSU though showed perhaps exactly why Georgia needs to get more out of its outside linebackers this season. For as well-designed as Georgia’s defense was, the Bulldogs just couldn’t get Joe Burrow on the ground. And that allowed him to carve up the Georgia defense.

The positive news though is that last season many were marveling about the raw talent in Dan Lanning’s room prior to the start of the season. And all of it returns for the 2020 campaign. It’s a position group with multiple 5-star prospects and where one of the lowest-rated recruits doubles as the most productive player among the group.

Georgia brings back every scholarship outside linebacker from a season ago, meaning sack leader Azeez Ojulari returns, as does Nolan Smith, the No. 1 player in the 2019 recruiting cycle. Ojulari finished with 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman. Smith, playing largely the same jack position as Ojulari, finished with 2.5.

But while those two figure to be the top pass rushers on the 2020 team, the Bulldogs still have a plethora of other pieces at the position. The Bulldogs will be able to have either Jermaine Johnson or Walter Grant man the sam position, which plays a huge role in stopping the run. Those two can also become key pieces on third and short situations, as they have the athletic ability to play the pass and run.

Then there’s Adam Anderson, a former 5-star prospect who seemed to find a home late in the 2019 season as a designated pass rusher for Georgia late in the season. While he might not be a perfect matchup for every team, against passing teams like Alabama and Florida, Anderson will be able to use his athleticism to play all over the field in those games.

Georgia didn’t lose anyone at the position, with Brenton Cox being the last player to depart as he transferred to Florida last year. The Bulldogs did though go out and add another talented prospect in Mekhail Sherman. He finished the 2020 recruiting cycle as the highest-rated 4-star prospect in the country.

Stop us if you’d heard this before, but Sherman is an incredibly versatile player that Georgia will be able to use in a number of ways. His athleticism will allow him to either emerge as an edge rusher or even play in an off-ball linebacker role.

It’s well-established of what this group could potentially do. While the group statically didn’t look anything like the 2016 Alabama defense, Georgia’s defense did have more sacks and tackles for loss than it did in the 2018 season.

That came after having to replace leading pass-rusher D’Andre Walker but also defensive coordinator Mel Tucker. Lanning did so in the latter and the early returns on that decision were strong.

Now Lanning is back in his second season as the defensive coordinator, with Glenn Schumann serving as the co-defensive coordinator. Those two, along with Kirby Smart, will once again go about shaping the Georgia defense in the 2020 season.

A lot of eyes will clearly be on the offense in 2020, given the turnover and troubles the group had in 2019. Most analysts see that side of the ball determining Georgia’s success in 2020, even if the defense is once again elite.

Related: Georgia football ‘No-Name’ defense narrative continues, Bulldogs snubbed again

But the Georgia defense can still improve in 2020. The outside linebacker room is perhaps best positioned to show growth, making an already fierce defense perhaps the undisputed best unit in the country. If Ojulari, Smith and Johnson all make individual leaps — each player saw their first significant snaps in a Georgia uniform in 2019 — the Bulldogs will have a real chance to get there.

If the outside linebacker room continues to turn talent into production, that in turn will help the offense. Sacks and tackles for loss force more three and outs. Pressures lead to poor throws, which lead to interceptions. And those give way to shorter fields for an offense, which normally leads to more points.

At the very least, Georgia is going to have a very good defense in 2020. That will probably always be the norm so long as Smart is the head coach for Georgia. But if Lanning and the outside linebackers continue to make improvements this season, the Bulldogs might have a difference-making defense.

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