ATHENS — Talk about wide open. Georgia has a lot of positions where it’s not exactly clear who will be the starter and what might be the rotation. In few areas is all that as murky as it is at defensive end.
Defensive end is somewhat of an odd position nowadays, especially if your defense primarily is a base 3-4, as the Bulldogs has been and will be at least some of the time under the new regime. Because of the proliferation of spread offenses in college football, the position’s primary responsibility has morphed from getting after the quarterback to providing contain and defending the run.
The last couple of years, no one handled those responsibilities better than Sterling Bailey. While he didn’t have a reputation as an all-star at Georgia, he had one with the coaches for being able to fulfill whatever duties they needed for the defense, regardless of how much those might change from week-to-week. Whether the Bulldogs opened in a 3-4 or 4-3 or 4-2, Bailey ended up starting nine of the 11 games in which the Bulldogs had a defensive end on the field. And that’s a big reason the 6-foot-3, 290-pound senior received an NFL combine invite.
Also gone are two others physically similar to Bailey. Josh Dawson and James DeLoach also were converted outside linebackers who beefed up to play in a stance. Bailey led all down-linemen with 46 tackles, 7 QB pressures and a sack while the three combined to play in 129 games in their careers.
A year later, there is no such experienced group to fall back on. However it ends up shaking out and with whom, there are two general expectations for defensive ends: They’re going to be younger and they’re going to be bigger. Or at least they need to be. And, of course, the Bulldogs also hope they’ll be better.
Here’s the breakdown:
- Returning starter: None.
- Others returning: D’Andre Walker, So.; Keyon Brown, RSo.; Michael Barnett, So.; Jonathan Ledbetter, So.; Joseph Ledbetter, Jr.; Chauncey Rivers, So.; Justin Young, RFr.
- Early enrollees: None
- On the way: Chauncey Manac, Fr.; David Marshall, Fr.
- Analysis: It’s important to note there are a lot of possibilities here. Smart has vowed to completely re-evaluate the Bulldogs’ talent, so virtually anybody who is a general body-type fit could end up playing at this position. Outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter started one game at end (against Alabama), so him or Davin Bellamy could end up there. And while D’Andre Walker and Keyon Brown are also considered linebackers first, they also could get a look. But this was not an unexpected transition period for Georgia and it has recruited hard and presumably well in search of heirs. Michael Barnett and Jonathan Ledbetter were both were high-4-star prospects who were recruited with this season in mind. Each played in seven games as freshmen. The same thing for Chauncey Rivers, who proved to be a pretty good player when he could stay out of trouble. He was suspended for the bowl and likely will be at least for a short while to start this season. Meanwhile, Smart and his staff made flipping David Marshall from Auburn a recruiting priority and was successful, so he’s certainly in their plans.
- Bottom line: This is going to be one of the most wide-open and unpredictable position battles to watch during the spring and likely well into preseason camp. The good news is Kirby Smart and the new staff has a lot of options. The bad news is they don’t have any proven ones. Outside of Carter’s one start at the position, there is no one with any extensive game experience to turn. Meanwhile, don’t count out tackle Trent Thompson here either. Though his size (6-4, 320) is considered best suited for tackle, that’s the exact same size that A’Shawn Robinson was while becoming an All-American at the position for Alabama last year.
Next: Placement kicks