ATHENS — There are a couple of things that stand out about Trenton Thompson’s performance against Nicholls State on Saturday. One, it’s always an exceptional feat whenever a down lineman records double figures in tackles, and the defensive tackle who folks in Albany call “Big Baby” had 11 in Georgia’s 26-24 victory. Two, he did that while playing pretty much half the snaps.
Georgia rotated defensive linemen liberally during the shockingly close game at Sanford Stadium. Not only was it necessary because of the searing heat and choking humidity, but the Bulldogs are determined to build depth at a position where they just don’t have any.
“We had seven, eight defensive linemen play anywhere from 20 to 40 snaps,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said. “We’re trying to keep those guys fresh, play a lot of them.”
But of them, Thompson always will play the most. The 6-foot-4, 310-pound athlete is starting to realize the potential so many people saw for him coming out of Westover High in Albany. When Thompson signed with the Bulldogs in February 2015, he was the No. 1-rated overall prospect in America, according to 247Sports.com, and a consensus 5-star across the board.
It’s a distinction Thompson likely will never live down and may not ever be able to live up to. But it does speak to his importance to his team.
“Trenton has come a long way, and he still has a long way to go,” said Smart, whose experience at Alabama makes him an expert on great defensive linemen. “Trenton’s best attribute is his quickness and that he plays really hard. It’s important to Trenton that he plays well.”
And Thompson has, mostly. He started six of the 12 games in which he played as a freshman last season. He missed one and was affected for several others in the middle of the season with a severe ankle sprain.
Thompson finished with 25 tackles – fourth among down linemen – a half-sack and three quarterback pressures. But his coaches and teammates know he’s capable of much more.
Indications are Georgia will get more out of him this season. Entering Saturday, when Georgia plays at Missouri in Game 3, he has the overall team lead in tackles, with 12, and tackles for loss, with 3.5. But there remains the hope that that Saturday’s game against Nicholls State was a breakout performance, and such production will become more of the norm for Thompson.
“Nicholls State was a pretty good team,” Thompson said Saturday, the first time since last season he has been allowed to speak to the media. “I mean, I don’t overlook nobody. I think they’ve got some good O-linemen. I think we’ve got some good D-linemen. The only thing we’ve got to do is use our technique and keep listening to our coaches.”
Thompson has incredible quickness and athletic ability for a player of his size. The key, both he and Smart agree, is refining his techniques and other idiosyncrasies to playing his position at a high level.
That explains why Thompson always seems to be a focus of attention for defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, who himself played the position at an extremely high level.
“Coach Rocker has worked really hard with Trenton on using his technique where he uses his hands more and strikes more because he’s really athletic,” Smart said. “He’s able to run some plays down that most 300-pounders can’t. Some of his best plays have come when the ball has spit out or broke (outside) on us. Trenton gives great effort and runs it down, which is why he had the stats that he had. … Any time you’ve got that, he’s chasing balls down. He’s a guy that has always played with good effort, but we’ve challenged him to play with much better technique, as we have every player on the defense.”
Another area that’s not necessarily a strong suit for Thompson is leadership. He is simply a quiet guy by nature and let’s his play on the field do the talking for him rather than being very vocal.
The Bulldogs would like for Thompson to be a little more outspoken with his teammates and particularly with his position mates. Georgia has four freshman who are a part of the regular defensive line rotation, including defensive ends David Marshall and Julian Rochester and nose guard/defensive tackles Michail Carter and Tyler Clark.
Overall, the entire unit feature just one upperclassman. That’s starting nose guard John Atkins, who is a redshirt junior.
“He’s a quiet guy in the locker room,” junior safety and defensive captain Dominick Sanders said of Thompson. “He’s a guy that’s going to watch film and do what he’s got to do to improve. He’s a guy you’re really not going to hear too much from, but you see his improvement throughout games.
“He just needs to come out of that shell a little bit, to just speak up a little bit. He’s a quiet guy, so there’s really not much you can do about that. But he’s a guy who’s going to compete and do what he has to do to for the defense.”
Georgia’s defense has actually held its own so far. It enters Saturday’s game ranked third in the SEC in total defense (275.5 ypg) and second in the league against the pass (133.5 ypg).
Certainly the Bulldogs needed to do a better job of keeping Nicholls State out of the end zone. Though the Colonels prospered from three short fields, they did have one 11-play, 75-yard scoring drive and scored three touchdowns. UGA has given up 24 points in each of the first two games.
Meanwhile, Missouri seems to have gotten its offense on track under the guidance of sophomore quarterback Drew Lock. The Tigers are averaging 554.5 yards and lock 450 yards and 5 TDs in Saturday’s 61-21 win over Eastern Michigan.
“At the end of the day, I would like to dominate the line of scrimmage more than we did,” Smart said of the Dogs’ defense. “They didn’t kill us in the run game, but they had a couple of plays where they did a nice job with the (run-pass option). … At the end of the day, I thought the guys actually executed better than they did against North Carolina, but we should have dominated completely up front and we did not always do that. So, we have to do a better job of that.”
If Thompson continues on his current arc of improvement, Georgia has chance.
“It’s about what we do, not what other teams do,” Thompson said. “We’ve just got to come out with a better attitude and play with good technique.”