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(Curtis Compton/AJC)
This was one of two interceptions made by Tae Crowder from his inside linebacker position last season.

Georgia’s Tae Crowder embracing his role as leader of talented linebacker corps

Chip Towers

ATHENS — Nobody is comparing Tae Crowder to Roquan Smith, but Crowder did acknowledge Saturday that he has spent about as much time at the inside linebacker position now as did Smith before he ran down every linebacker award out there.

Crowder, as has been well-chronicled to this point, didn’t move to inside linebacker until late in his freshman season of 2016. At the time, Smith was a sophomore was just starting to find his way at the position. Smith didn’t even open the season as a starter, but he was by the end of it. In fact, Smith started the last 10 and led the team with 95 tackles.

That was before Smith’s breakout year of 2017. As a junior, he’d pile up 137 tackles, earned consensus All-America honors and won the Butkus Award as the nation’s top linebacker.

Crowder’s entering his senior season, but he’s on about the same timeline in terms of college experience. He’d never played the position before moving there from running back late in 2016, toiled behind Smith and others in 2017 and finally broke through as a starter last year. Crowder started five of the Bulldogs’ last six games last season, played in all of them as a regular in the rotation and finished with 53 tackles.

Crowder has remained with the No. 1 defense as Georgia opened practice this spring. And finally, after all that transition, he feels like he 100 percent knows what he’s doing.

“It wasn’t easy at all,” said Crowder, who signed with Georgia as a 3-star running back prospect out of Harris County High. “It took a lot of practice. Once you start practicing, then you have to transition for the game. It’s different techniques. You have to learn to be more physical to be a defensive player.”

Georgia’s defensive emphasis on creating more “havoc plays” in 2019. That plays right into Crowder’s hands.

The Bulldogs weren’t impressive on that front in 2018 but Crowder was the best among the linebackers. Among the “havoc plays” he made were two interceptions — including a 43-yard return against Missouri — 6 tackles for loss, 5 quarterback pressures, a fumble caused and a fumble recovered. All of those numbers were tops among inside linebackers.

Understandably, nobody’s more excited about the Bulldogs’ initiative to create more of the same this season than Crowder. “We’ve still got to do a great job of open-field tackling and stuff like that, but (havoc plays) are a big deal for us,” he said.

Crowder’s progress hasn’t kept Georgia from recruiting linebackers. Hardly. Coach Kirby Smart and his staff have targeted every blue-chip prospect in the South since Smith’s junior-year departure for the NFL and landed more than a few of them. Mississippi’s Nakobe Dean, the No. 1-ranked linebacker in the country, is the latest sensation. Dean is a 4.0 student and an early enrollee and is competing with Crowder for snap’s in this very spring camp.

But Crowder doesn’t look at it like that. He’s trying to help get Dean and fellow freshmen Trezman Marshall and Rian Davis ready to play, just like he did Channing Tindall and Quay Walker last year and just like Smith did for him back in 2016.

“We’re all working hard,” Crowder said after the Bulldogs’ sixth practice of the spring on Saturday. “We push each other each day. It’s competitive but, at the end of the day, we’re behind each other. … I’m trying to lead the young guys in the right direction and trust our coaching.”

The 6-0, 220-pound Dean has already drawn the praise of Smart as well as some comparison to Roquan from some teammates. Davis (knee) and Marshall (shoulder) are also early enrollees but are currently sidelined with injuries suffered their senior seasons.

Georgia already has what appears to be a pretty solid SEC rotation with Crowder, junior Monty Rice, Tindall and Walker all back in the fold. But Dean has been seen getting some reps with the No. 1 defense from time-to-time.

But after Smith’s star-studded tenure, he’ll be the standard by which all other linebackers are judged in the foreseeable future. While that may be the case on the outside, it’s not inside the linebackers’ meeting room, and certainly not for the mild-mannered Crowder.

“I’m just try to be the best I can be and try to be the best leader I can be,” Crowder said. “Whatever Coach (Glenn) Schumann wants to go with, we just listen to him and go with it. We change around just to get different guys playing with different people, because you never know what could happen in a game situation.”

Whatever the situation this fall, it appears Crowder will be in the mix.

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