ATHENS — Whether Natrez Patrick will participate in the G-Day Game next Saturday or Georgia’s season opener next fall remains unclear. But he was at the Bulldogs’ practice Saturday and preparing to play sometime in the 2018 season.
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was asked about the Bulldogs’ starting middle linebacker after he wasn’t spotted during the media observation period early in practice Saturday, which represented practice No. 12 of the 15-practice spring session.
“Natrez had a funeral to go to, guys,” Smart told reporters. “I think there’s there was a large overreaction to that. … He came in 12 minutes after y’all left and scrimmaged the rest of the day.”
Patrick was reinstated to the team for the 2018 season after missing six games last season because of disciplinary suspensions. He entered substance-abuse treatment in December after an arrest following the SEC Championship Game and missed both of Georgia’s College Football Playoff appearances.
Smart still hasn’t detailed whether Patrick will be immediately eligible next fall or will miss more games.
“Natrez is working as hard as he can to do everything right and do everything we ask,” Smart said. “We’ll worry about that when the time’s come. Right now, worried about practice on Tuesday with Natrez, just like we were worried about [Saturday]. Why do we have to worry about that? We’re worried about what’s important right now. What’s important right now is Natrez’s growth and development and that he becomes a better man and a better person.”
The Bulldogs could definitely use Patrick on the field. They lost all four starting linebackers from the 2017 team that went 13-2, including Butkus Award-winning inside linebacker Roquan Smith. Patrick recorded 35 tackles while starting seven games alongside Smith last season. He started nine games in 2016 and finished with 59 tackles while also missing time because of a shoulder injury.
The competition for the snaps logged last season mostly by Smith and Reggie Carter has been intense. Converted tailback Tae Crowder was repping with the No. 1 defense at the Mike position early in practice Saturday. Senior Juwan Taylor is also getting work there alongside sophomores Monty Rice and Nate McBride. Sophomores Jaden Hunter and Jaleel Laguins are also getting looks there.
“They all go in there and play [Mike],” Smart said. “You guys want to speculate, ‘Is he with the 1s, is he with the 2s?’ We’re practicing everybody at linebacker. We’re preparing to go forward and develop all our young players. When the two guys we signed get here, we’re going to give them a lot of reps, too.”
Georgia signed Channing Tindall of Columbia, S.C., and Quay Walker of Cordele in February. Both are consensus 4-star prospects who will enroll in June.
None of them have anywhere close to the experience of Patrick. The senior from Mays High School has played in 30 games with 18 starts and has totaled 116 tackles.
The combination of Patrick and Rice is the anticipated starting duo for next season. But Smart was complimentary of Crowder, who converted from tailback to inside linebacker during the spring of 2016.
“He’s come a long way, and he’s still not there,” Smart said of the 6-foot-3, 228-pound junior from Hamilton. “That just tells you how far he had to go. … He’s gotten more contact-tough, he enjoys contact, he’s an extremely good athlete for a big man. He’s got one of the largest wingspans on our team. But he’s missed all those years of playing linebacker and seeing things naturally. So, he’s growing, and I’m glad we made the move because he’s come so far. But he’s got to continue to get better.”
According to Smart, the Bulldogs need a lot of players to get better at inside linebacker. They’ll be starting over after Smith entered the NFL draft as a junior.
“That’s the position, inside ‘backer, that we have no dominant player, no clear, head-and-shoulders, above-the-rest linebacker guy. So we want somebody to stick out. We want an alpha male who leads the defense and dominates. That hasn’t happened yet.”