ATHENS – When Georgia’s running game sputtered on G-Day, and Jacob Eason was “sacked” five times, the takeaway that emerged was that the offensive line still had a ways to go, contrary to the spring narrative that it had improved. And maybe that’s true.
But the other part of that shouldn’t be lost: Georgia’s defensive line is still very good.
And that was without probably its best member.
Trent Thompson spent Georgia’s spring practices jogging and working out on the side, still a member of this college football team, though not technically a student. Thompson withdrew from classes in February in order to concentrate on the unspecified medical issue. There have been no apparent setbacks, and we should be hearing soon that Thompson has re-enrolled at classes for the summer.
Thompson wouldn’t have participated anyway this spring because of a shoulder injury, which also appears not to be an issue heading into the summer. (He hasn’t been seen in a sling for a while.) But while Georgia will be quite happy to have its emerging star back, it wasn’t exactly hurting without Thompson.
Georgia’s talent is oozing on the defensive line, even with a disappointing signing class in February, at least in terms of numbers. There is some possible risk with a change in position coaches, with Tracy Rocker fired and the less-experienced Tray Scott now on board.
But a lot would have to go wrong for this not to be a real strength for Georgia in 2017. Let’s delve into it.
- Returning starter: Jonathan Ledbetter, junior
- Notable reserves: David Marshall, sophomore; Michail Carter, sophomore; Justin Young, sophomore
- On the way: Malik Herring, freshman
- Analysis: There was a lot of buzz this spring about Ledbetter, who having moved past his off-field struggles is poised to become a force this season in the SEC. He showed flashes of it last year, when he had 24 tackles and 2.5 tackles-for-loss in just seven games. And he’s a more chiseled 270 pounds (give or take) now. Ledbetter has the ability to make big plays in the backfield and at the line, against the run and the pass. Then there’s Marshall, who had an impact right away as a freshman last year, while Ledbetter was out, as Marshall had 2.5 sacks while making four starts. Carter and Young would be candidates for heavy playing time on almost every other team in the SEC, and will still push for playing time this year. Herring has the ability to play too, it’s just a matter of whether coaches can find room for him.
- Bottom line: There’s a lot of snaps to go around, as the Bulldogs will rotate and sub liberally, the way they did last year. But Ledbetter’s conditioning has been good enough that he could stay on the field longer than most. He’ll start most games and could have a breakout year. Marshall will also play a lot, and start in some situations.
- Returning starters: Trent Thompson, junior; Julian Rochester, sophomore
- Notable reserves: DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle, junior; Tyler Clark, sophomore
- On the way: Devonte Wyatt, freshman
- Analysis: Thompson, who 247Sports rated the nation’s top overall recruit in 2015, was this close to a breakout year, tying for Georgia’s lead in sacks with 5, and leading the team with 9.5 tackles for loss. He was also third with 56 tackles, quite an impressive feat for a lineman. The only thing that held him back was midseason concern about his practice performance, which caused him to temporarily lose his starting spot to Rochester. And by the way, Rochester was quite impressive in his own right, with 2 sacks and 36 tackles. Georgia really can’t go wrong with either of them, though Thompson has the greater star potential. Hawkins-Muckle isn’t too shabby himself and started five games last year. Clark (0.5 sacks and 21 tackles last year) started to emerge this spring. Wyatt falls in the same category as Herring: good enough to play right away, but it might take injuries for that to occur.
- Bottom line: Again, it’s not going to be easy getting the requisite amount of snaps for everybody. But the coaches will try. Thompson and Rochester can both play anywhere on the line, which helps the flexibility of the lineups. There will once again be no hesitation going to four- or even five-man fronts.
- Returning starter: John Atkins, senior
- Notable reserves: Hawkins-Muckle, Clark.
- On the way: Wyatt.
- Analysis: Atkins is this year’s guy that everyone will joke about having been around forever. He will be a fifth-year senior and yes, he’s already graduated. And Scott will be his third position coach, though he was recruited by a fourth (Rodney Garner.) There’s an under-appreciated aspect to Atkins, partially because the nose is not a stat-inducing position, but also partly because the nose isn’t as much of an emphasis. The proliferation of up-tempo offenses means that coaches want their linemen to be more svelte and able to get on and off the field. Atkins is listed at 308 pounds, while Hawkins-Muckle checked in this spring at 318 and Clark was at 305.
- Bottom line: Atkins can have a solid season, and Hawkins-Muckle can be a solid backup there when he’s not at defensive tackle. The main question here is just how much they will play. Atkins, as the team’s one true nose, could see a lot of action, but Hawkins-Muckle and Clark are also candidates to play a lot of nose, if for no other reason than the talent at the other positions offers that flexibility.
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