ATHENS — Tyrique McGhee is listed as 5-foot-10, 187 pounds on Georgia’s roster. That may be a generous estimation. Suffice it to say, he’s not among the bigger players on the Bulldogs’ defense, or even in their secondary.
But when it comes to playing the physical, heady role that the “star” position does in Georgia’s defense, pound-for-pound there is no one tougher than McGhee. Those traits were on display for all to see Saturday night against Florida, as the Bulldogs pulled out a hard-fought 36-17 victory over then-No. 9 Florida.
Georgia’s smallest player on the field played big against the Gators. McGhee made two of the biggest plays in the game, with a fumble and interception. He was also third on the team with five tackles.
Add it all up and he was a major contributor in a defensive performance that limited Florida to 275 yards of offense in a must-have game.
Tyrique McGhee leaps in front of Florida’s Josh Hammond to record an interception in the first half of last Saturday’s win in Jacksonville. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
“It was very rewarding just being able to come out with my teammates and be able to help,” McGhee said. “That’s what every player dreams of, to be able to create turnovers for the defense and give the ball back to our offense. So it felt good to be able put up some production for my team.”
Georgia coach Kirby Smart was also an undersized defensive back who packed some punch back in his day. McGhee has given him an I-told-you-so-opportunity when it comes to the junior from Peach County and “physicality” being more of a mentality than an action.
“He’s physical, he strikes, he tackles, he plays bigger than he is. He’s not afraid of contact. He’s tough,” Smart said in rapid-fire description. “I know the culture that he’s from at Peach County. They grow ’em tough down there. … I’ve seen some of the most physical practices I’ve ever seen in my time recruiting at Peach County and that’s where he’s from. He may not weigh much, but he’ll hit you.”
That’s just one part of playing the star position, however. It’s effectively a nickel-back, or fifth defensive back, position. But the Bulldogs are in “nickel” probably 75 or 80 percent of the time.
The individuals that play there are intricately involved in defending both the run and pass. On a pass play, he may have to cover a tight end, a slot receiver or somebody out of the backfield. Against the run, he often has to play inside the tackle box, basically as another linebacker.
Ideally, a defensive coordinator designates a player that has the physical traits to play both linebacker and defensive back. That is, a relatively big defensive back with decent speed or a linebacker type with exceptional speed.
McGhee exhibits neither of those traits. But he does possess the one that is most important. That part about being where he’s supposed to be on any given play.
“Knowing the defense is first and foremost at that position,” said McGhee, who played in all 15 games last season, starting two. “You’ve got to know our defense and be willing to get physical. And I don’t have any trouble or problem with playing inside the box or in coverage at all. I’m just thankful for the trust Coach (Mel) Tucker and Coach Smart have in me to play that position.”
It’s not like the Bulldogs don’t have other options. Both freshman Otis Reese and sophomore Deangelo Gibbs have better physical traits for playing the position. Gibbs (6-1, 205) is currently listed as McGhee’s backup. And Smart mentioned on Tuesday that the 6-3, 210-pound Reese is “really close” to earning some meaningful playing time.
“He’s had some good practices and some good moments,” Smart said of Reese. “Really haven’t found a way to get him in the game, in the flow of the game, but he’s getting better.”
The problem is, the Bulldogs can’t take a chance on a major coverage bust in this stretch of games they’re currently going through. And that’s especially true for Kentucky.
While the Wildcats don’t put up a ton of points, they feature the SEC’s top running back in Benny Snell (122 ypg) and a mobile quarterback in Terry Wilson, who loves to run with the football. But crowd the box too much and Wilson also has been known to hit some receivers deep at times. Wideout Lynn Bowden has 43 catches, including a 54-yard touchdown.
Again, the Bulldogs know they can depend on McGhee to be in the right place. And even though he’s small, he knows what to do when he gets there.
Tyrique McGhee (26) ripped the ball away from Florida quarterback Feleipe Franks, which linebacker Tae Crowder pounced upon on the Florida 1. (Curtis Compton/AJC)
“He’ll strike you,” Smart said. “He loves football and he understands our defense, which helps him. A big part of it is knowing where his help is and he’s been using that.”
McGhee was slow to contribute this season because of a foot injury. He suffered a stress fracture in one foot in preseason camp and was unable to play in the season opener and only sparingly in the first three games.
McGhee’s role ramped up against the pass-oriented Missouri Tigers. Since then, McGhee has started three of the last four games, missing out on the Vanderbilt start only because of defensive alignment.
Against the Gators, McGhee’s interception of a woefully under-thrown ball by Feleipe Franks thwarted an early drive. McGhee victimized Franks again when he shot in from the secondary, meeting Franks at the Florida 1 and ripped the ball from his clutches. Linebacker Tae Crowder recovered for Georgia at the 1. Though the Bulldogs had to settle for three points, it gave them a two-score lead heading into the fourth quarter of what would become a blowout.
“It was a big game for me, and I feel like I helped my team the best I could to get the victory,” McGhee said.
McGhee did, and he wouldn’t have been in position to make that play if he hadn’t recognized the situation and been willing to meet Florida’s 6-foot-6 quarterback at the line of scrimmage.
“I think it’s just a mentality,” McGhee said of being physical. “Like Coach Smart says, if you have the mentality for playing that way, that’s kind of 90 percent of the battle. The other 10 is up to you. I think it’s just the way I was brought up and was made. The physical part is in your mind first, the rest of it is easy.”
The Bulldogs will be hoping for more of the same against Kentucky.