JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Jake Ganus racked up every award imaginable in one season with the Bulldogs, including defensive MVP and team captain. And he’ll be gone from UGA forever by Monday morning. But the senior inside linebacker said Georgia fans can rest assured that the position he manned so admirably this year is in good hands in the future.
Ganus, a 6-foot-2, 233-pound transfer from UAB, started all 12 games for the Bulldogs at “Mike,” or middle linebacker. From there, Ganus made all the defensive calls and also made tackles by the bunches. He finished with a team-best 96 – an average of eight per game – and finished the season on a tear. He had 11, 10 and 12 stops in the Bulldogs’ last three games.
Most of the season, Tim Kimbrough played alongside Ganus. But the junior from Indianapolis was suspended for the Saturday’s TaxSlayer Bowl for undisclosed team rules violation and did not accompany the team to Jacksonville.
That left Natrez Patrick to fill the void. The 6-foot-3, 248-pound freshman out of Atlanta’s Mays High School got his first start of the year in the season finale against Georgia Tech and responded with four tackles, a quarterback sack and two tackles for loss.
Patrick’s performance continued the buzz of excitement about him that actually began back in spring practice when, as an early enrollee, he was moved from outside linebacker to inside linebacker.
“Natrez has done an extremely great job stepping in,” Georgia interim head coach Bryan McClendon said. “He’s one of those guys who has done a lot to earn a bunch of playing time. … Obviously he’s a guy that we are comfortable with and confident in to come in and execute the game plan and know what to do. He’s smart enough to learn the checks and knows the defense and knows how to get lined up and where to be.”
Patrick heads up a large group of linebackers the Bulldogs signed in their 2015 recruiting class. It was obviously an area of need, and that became even more pronounced after junior Reggie Carter, a projected starter, was sidelined for the season with a shoulder injury.
Carter’s status for next season remains uncertain. There has been some speculation that he might retire from football. Kimbrough is expected to return for his senior season and will be an incumbent starter.
Of the seven linebackers signed, six made it to Athens – Gary McCrae had to attend junior college – and Patrick, Roquan Smith of Montezuma and Juwan Taylor of Hollywood, Fla., have emerged as the heirs apparent.
“It’s been awesome to watch,” Ganus said of their development. “They came in and obviously they were all big-time high school recruits and stuff. But just to see them transition from being those big-time recruits to being big-time college football players has been fun. I’ve tried to help as much as I can. But those guys, Roquan, Natrez and Juwan, are three freak athletes. They all bring different things to the table. They’re different styles of linebackers.”
Ganus was asked for his assessment of the young ‘backers:
On Patrick: “Natrez is the bigger guy. He can thump you in the hole. … He just does a lot of things well. When you think of a linebacker, he’s the kind that’s a big body, strong, thick, he’s pretty fast. He’s a good kid and he does everything he needs to do to be successful. He watches extra film, he does all that kind of stuff.”
On Smith and Taylor: “Roquan and JT are pretty similar. They’re faster, a little leaner. They will definitely hit you and they’ve learned to get off blocks. They’re so much farther along than I was as a freshman it’s not even close. I think they’re going to be in good hands the next couple of years.”
Taylor is the wildcard in the group. He was the least ballyhooed as a recruit, coming from Hallandale High as a 3-star prospect, and his contributions have come primarily on special teams.
But Taylor has wowed his coaches and teammates with his potential and rapid physical development.
“He’s come so far,” Ganus said. “He came in at like 190, 195, just really skinny, like most high school linebackers are. He does a really good job of everything. Over the year he’s gotten a lot better. He does a great job. He’s just gotten so much better. From where he’s come from, he’s put on the weight, he’s put on the muscle and now he’s able to get off blocks and make tackles.”
As for Ganus, increasingly this bowl trip has become an emotional exercise for him. As has been well documented on the last several weeks, his was truly a storybook year at Georgia and, while he now has very realistic professional opportunities as a result, he’d almost like to have another year to enjoy with the team. It’s all ending so quickly.
“For me, it’s my last college game no matter how you look at it,” he said. “I want to go out as a winner. I want to get 10 wins my senior season. I want to do everything I can to get that done, and there’s a lot that goes into that.
“It’s another game for the seniors. It’s our last college game. Could be our last game ever. So we’re going to go out there and give it our all. I love this team so much, I just want to give everything back to them.”