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(Bob Andres/AJC)
Georgia's Tae Crowder dives for the goal line after scooping up a fumble against Florida last October. It was one of a number of big plays Crowder made as part-time starter and regular part of the Bulldogs' inside linebacker rotation last fall. He's expected to play even more this year.

SPRING PREVIEW: Now an experienced senior, Georgia’s Tae Crowder has a chance to shine at inside linebacker

Chip Towers

PRE-SPRING FOOTBALL ANALYSIS

Part XII: The inside linebackers

This is Part 12 in a series breaking down and analyzing each position group for the Georgia Bulldogs in advance of spring football practice, which is scheduled to begin on March 19.

ATHENS — A former high school wide receiver who signed with Georgia as a 2-star running back will enter his senior season as one of the Bulldogs’ starting inside linebackers. And this, believe it or not, is considered a good thing.

Crowder was ranked the 269th wideout in the country and the number 214 prospect in the state of Georgia by 247Sports as a senior at Harris County High School. Crowder was a last-minute signee with the Bulldogs as a tailback but was switched to linebacker late in his redshirt freshman season of 2016 because he wasn’t finding much playing time behind Nick Chubb and Sony Michel. Initially, it was just labeled as an experiment by coach Kirby Smart, but Crowder stuck. And after having to sit behind players like Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick, has finally found his way onto the field with the defense.

Now a 6-foot-3, 235-pound senior, there is nothing not to like about Crowder as a “Mike,” or middle, linebacker. He will have to stave off a bunch of young and hungry prototype inside ‘backers who have been recruited to Georgia to take Crowder’s job. But Crowder has one thing the others do not — experience.

The action Crowder got in many of his 28 career appearances came on special teams and as a backup. That changed in the second half of last season. Between injuries and his own improved competency at playing linebacker, Crowder ended up starting five of the Bulldogs’ last six games. He played well, too, averaging 5.4 tackles in those games — including a career-high 8 against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game.

Crowder produced some highlights throughout the season, including a sack and forced fumble against Vanderbilt, seven tackles against LSU, a fumble recovery against Florida, a six-yard tackle for loss against Auburn and a 43-yard interception return for a near touchdown against Missouri.

That represented quite a jump in production for Crowder, who’s previous claim to fame had been corralling an line-drive, squib kickoff and getting down fast to set up a late first-half field goal against Oklahoma in the 2017 Rose Bowl.

“It just took a lot of practice,” Crowder said during the Bulldogs’ Sugar Bowl preparations. “I just kept working hard. Coach (Smart) emphasizes that a lot, working hard in practice. ‘You can’t just go in the games and think you’re going to be able to do this and do that.’ So all my success started in practice.”

Rice

Georgia should have experience at the other inside linebacker position as well as sophomore Monty Rice will be back and hopefully will be able to stay healthy. Rice missed three games in a row and then played only sparingly in the Sugar Bowl against Texas because of a foot injury. His status for spring practice is not known at this time, but the team’s third-leading tackler should definitely be good to go in the fall. When well, Rice gives the Bulldogs as close to a sideline-to-sideline tackler as they’ve had since Roquan Smith.

In the fall, Crowder and Rice will share snaps in a four-player rotation that will include Channing Tindall and Quay Walker. Both highly-touted prospects coming out of high school, the rising sophomores played in all 14 games as freshmen and are thought to have a higher overall ceiling than the designated starters. Either could end up overtaking a primary role before the season’s over.

Meanwhile, the Bulldogs have taken their inside linebacker recruiting to a new level. They signed three in the 2019 class and they all made it to campus as early enrollees. All eyes will be on Nakobe Dean — the No. 1-ranked ILB prospect in the country — as the other two signees entered college recovering from injuries.

That’s OK. Georgia now knows what it has in Crowder, and the Bulldogs believe that’s everything they need for championship-level defensive play.

Let’s break it down:

THE INSIDE ‘BACKERS

  • Returning starters: None
  • Others returning: Tae Crowder, 6-3, 235, senior; Monty Rice, 6-1, 235, junior; Jaden Hunter, 6-2, 228, Jr.; Nate McBride, 6-2, 223, Jr.; Channing Tindall, 6-2, 218, sophomore; Quay Walker, 6-4, 240, Soph.; Miles Miccichi, 6-1, 227, RFr.
  • Early enrollees: Rian Davis, 6-2, 230, freshman; Nakobe Dean, 6-0, 220, Fr.; Trezman Marshall, 6-1, 230, Fr.
  • On the way: Unknown.
  • Analysis: Even though both Crowder (5) and Rice (5) started multiple games last season, neither is technically considered a returning starter. Graduating seniors Natrez Patrick (8) and Juwan Taylor (9) go into UGA’s official log with the distinction as 2018 starters at inside linebacker because they started more games. Nevertheless, with the exception of years in which there is a Roquan Smith on the roster, it’s a heavily-rotated position under coach Kirby Smart. Currently there aren’t any Roquan Smith’s in sight. The thought is that Tindall and/or Dean may eventually develop into such caliber of a player, but it’s important to remember that it was late in his sophomore season before Smith began to play at an all-star level. Meanwhile, Georgia hasn’t gotten the development it sought out of Jaden Hunter or Nate McBride. Though both were 4-star prospects coming out of high school, neither has gotten meaningful playing time on defense heading into their junior seasons. So the Bulldogs will be looking to the sophomore and freshman classes for depth and, hopefully, some budding all-stars.
  • Bottom line: Crowder has shown the potential to play at an all-conference level in short spurts, as have Rice and Tindall. If Georgia isn’t getting it, there is the potential for a position change, especially from a inordinately large and elite group of outside linebackers. Don’t be surprised to see the Bulldogs experiment with junior Walter Grant (6-4, 245) at an inside spot. But the future is bright at the position. The number of snaps they got late last season indicate coach Glenn Schumann is pleased with the progress of Tindall and Walker. And, in addition to Dean, the Bulldogs signed 4-star linebacker prospects Rian Davis and Trezman Marshall. However, the extent of their availability for spring practice — and perhaps more important, off-season conditioning — is currently unknown. Both Davis (ACL) and Marshall (shoulder) were recovering from injuries suffered late in the senior seasons in high school.

UP NEXT: New DC Dan Lanning will have his hands full determining who plays how much at loaded outside linebacker position.

SPRING FOOTBALL PREVIEW