ATHENS — Lorenzo Carter still wears the wrist bands. They’re from the state football championships he won while playing at Norcoss High in 2012 and 2013. Those victories were secured in the Georgia Dome.
Carter will return to the Dome for the first time since then along with the Georgia Bulldogs when they face North Carolina in the Chick-fil-A Kickoff Game this Saturday. And, yeah, Carter is feeling a little nostalgic.
“It’s going to be great,” said Carter, now a junior outside linebacker for the Bulldogs. “I have my state championship wrist band on all the time. Every time I look at it I think of the great times I had in the Georgia Dome. I want to keep it going.”
If the Bulldogs are to have any defensive success in this game, Carter will have been a big part of it. The former 5-star recruit is finally in position to be a starter and full-time contributor on defense. Until now, he had to bide his time behind all-stars Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins.
Now that they’re earning big paychecks in the NFL, Carter is ready to earn his shot as a starter and every-down player. That pursuit begins Saturday.
“My body has matured, I’ve grown as a player, on and off the field,” said Carter, who still looks relatively slim at 6-foot-6, 242 pounds. “It’s just a lot of things that have gone into to it. I feel like it’s a great time now to get ready to play some football.”
It has been a long time coming. As an AJC Super 11 player and No. 1-ranked player in the state of Georgia, the thought was that Carter would be all-world in college by now. But it has taken a while for him to find his footing.
“I think he had a great freshman year; he did some great things that year,” said Keith Maloof, Carter’s coach at Norcross. “Sometimes things happen like what happened last year. He had the sophomore whatever-you-call-it. But he did some good things in the role they put him in. He just wasn’t an every-down player.”
It’s not like he hasn’t played. Carter has appeared in all 26 games the Bulldogs have played his first two seasons and he has started seven of those.
But the sack-monster role everybody projected for Carter just hasn’t come to fruition. He has 4.5 career sacks and all of them came in his freshman season. He was shut out last year.
“It’s just understanding your role,” Carter said. “Every player has a role. Every player is not going to be the superstar. So you’ve just got to understand your role and do what you have to do to help the team.”
Coach Kirby Smart has taken a personal interest in Carter. On several occasions this preseason the Bulldogs’ new head man has said they need Carter to play well for the defense to be effective this season.
“Yeah, he stays on me, all the outside linebackers, really,” Carter said. “Coach Smart is everywhere; that man is all over the place. If you’re not doing something right, he’ll let you know and let you know what you need to do to fix it.”
Georgia simply has to pressure the passer more. Its 19 sacks last year was the second-fewest in the SEC. Smart’s Alabama defense led the league with 53.
But Smart took exception Monday to notion that Carter has been a personal project of his.
“Lorenzo Carter is a guy that works hard every day,” Smart said. “He gives great effort in practice. We’ve challenged him to play with more toughness, but I wouldn’t call him a personal project of mine. I would say those are your words. But Lorenzo has done everything we’ve asked him to do.”
Indeed, whatever shortcomings Carter may have had on the field have not been the result of effort. His coaches and teammates have always lauded him for his work ethic. This past spring, he was one of six recipients of the Coffee County Hustle Award.
“Lorenzo is one of the hardest-working guys on the team,” fellow outside linebacker Davin Bellamy said.
No, for Carter it has been a struggle to put much weight on his long and lanky frame. Perhaps that explains why he has had problems at the point of attack against the run. After recording 41 tackles as a freshman, he had only 19 stops last year.
“That’s our main point: We want to be physical and stop the run,” Carter said. “That’s what Coach Smart is emphasizing and that’s what we have to emphasize as players. … I’m definitely improving, constantly improving. If you’re not getting better you’re getting worse. That’s the thing: We’ve got to get out there, make sure we have a certain mindset that we’re going to stop the run that day.”
They’ll have their hands full Saturday. The Tar Heels run a fast-break spread offense that features tailback Elijah Hood. The 6-foot, 230-pound junior rushed for 1,463 yards a year ago.
At the same time, North Carolina was one of the most balanced and prolific-scoring offenses in America last season. They averaged 40.2 points per game and are expected to pass the ball even better behind new quarterback Mitch Trubisky and three of their top four receivers from last year.
That, and the Tar Heels play at a break-neck pace.
“Speed, a lot of speed,” Carter said. “Hurrying back to the ball, making sure we get back and get our calls, making sure we keep our composure, ‘cause North Carolina is going to go fast, and we’re going to be right there with them.”
Maloof is anticipating a special season for his former star.
“A lot of college players come in and need a little bit of an adjustment period to get to where they can reach their full potential,” Maloof said. “But by the time he leaves the University of Georgia, he’ll be one of the top players they’ve ever had. I feel like he’ll have a breakout year.”