Jeff Dantzler takes a look at the 2017 Georgia Bulldogs position by position and turns his focus to the defensive side of the ball and the special teams.
First and foremost is the health and well-being of the tremendously talented Trenton Thompson. The junior defensive tackle is one of the SEC’s best players and a potential AU-American. Taking the spring to get his health in order, Thompson is expected back for the season as the centerpiece of the defensive front. He was the MVP of the Liberty Bowl and aims to carry that performance into 2017. FeUow junior Jonathan Ledbetter is hungry for a breakout campaign at defensive end. Junior DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle and senior John Atkins give the BuUdogs talent and strength in the middle. A quartet of sophomores, who played extensively as true freshmen, is poised to emerge as front line players. Massive defensive tackle Julian Rochester could be a big-time force on the interior. Tyler Clark and Michail Carter will get plenty of snaps and can play all over the line. David Marshall was a terrific late recruiting pick up by Smart and will fight for a starting spot at end. Justin Young is another versatile defensive lineman in the rotation, and a healthy Michael Barnett, who has worked some at offensive tackle, gives Georgia a strong 10-deep of returnees.
Georgia’s defensive line has the potential to be one of the best in college football. They can be run-stuffers and quarterback sackers. But the unit has to make the jump. There are a couple of items in particular that Georgia must rectify, and it starts up front.
While the Bulldogs had one of the better defenses in the SEC a year ago, the stop unit was atrocious in the red zone. Abysmal. Awful. The worst – worst! – in college football. Gotta get loads better there. And there is the matter of defending the triple option offense on the flats. Tech twice marched for fourth- quarter touchdowns the Saturday after Thanksgiving, delivering a brutal and painful result
As for incoming help on the defensive line, Georgia has a big tackle in Devonte Wyatt and end Malik Herring. Recruiting the defensive front is a top priority for the Bulldogs class of 2018. Of course, every team needs good big linemen every year, so the Dogs are not alone.
Just like the defensive line, Georgia’s linebackers have the potential to be outstanding. The Bulldogs have experienced talent and did a great job recruiting a quintet of heir apparent backers.
Natrez Patrick and Roquan Smith, a pair of juniors, form one of the league’s most potent inside linebacker duos. Both have battled recent injuries, the Dogs sorely missed Patrick the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Reggie Carter is a more than capable backup. Georgia welcomes in early enrollee Monty Rice and five star Nate McBride, who will follow in their footsteps, both will likely play this year and could certainly be special teams contributors.
On the outside, Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy are back for their senior seasons. Carter looked like a future first rounder as a freshman, had a poor sophomore season, and showed flashes last year. Georgia needs him to be an every down standout and be stout against the run – not just a pursuer. Carter has all the tools. If he puts it together, Georgia could have a top-notch playmaker on the outside. DAndre Walker has shown signs of being an outstanding pass-rusher, and a special teams playmaker. He has to cut down the penalties.
Walter Grant, Bulldog legacy Jaden Hunter and Robert Beal are the true freshmen aiming to make an instant impact. They are the next wave and could help on defense and the kicking game in 2017.
Like linebacker and the offensive line, Georgia loaded up with a slew of standout recruits in the secondary, and return a group of experienced players that should combine to make the defensive backfield an area of strength.
Dominick Sanders is a ball hawk at safety, and Smart and defensive coordinator/ secondary coach Mel Tucker are challenging him to be a team leader and have a first team All-SEC caliber campaign. While the competition at star/nickel back could have a trickle down. If Aaron Davis is the other safety, then that star position figures to be a battle between highly touted freshman DeAngelo Gibbs and sophomore Tyrique McGhee, who can certainly help at comer. Senior Malkom Parrish and junior Deandre Baker are back as the starting corners and will have help from a quartet of incoming freshman, including William Poole III.
Richard LeCounte is the heir apparent at safety and will have a big impact on defense and special teams this season. Arguably the top player in the state, he was Smart’s first verbal commitment in December of 2015. LeCounte attended the same high school as Georgia miss and Ohio State signee Raekwon McMillon. It was essential that the Bulldogs land LeCounte. Not only did he make the early commitment, LeCounte proved to be the ringleader of the class who helped make it one of the country’s best He and Gibbs will be on the field a lot this season and could star for two or three years after.
Often times when there is a coaching change, the Achilles for the former staff prove to be a first-year nemesis for the new man. The change is made for a reason, and there figures to be a carryover. The future is bright on the offensive line, and though the special teams improved last year, the unit needs to make another big jump in 2017.
Rodrigo Blankenship got hot last season and made the game-winner against Kentucky. However, a first quarter miss proved costly in the one-point loss the Saturday after Thanksgiving. There will be help coming from Wofford graduate transfer David Marvin, who banged through a pair of 57-yarders for the Terriors.
Marvin could also factor in as a punter, as could Columbia University graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek. They will push sophomore Marshall Long, who averaged just 38.7 yards per punt and suffered a major injury late in the season.
There could be freshman walk on help coming, including kickoffs. It’s another area where Smart is drilling competition. The dividends will be big.
As for the return game, Georgia must replace Isaiah McKenzie, who was electric but also suffered some drops and fumbles. Terry Godwin, who returned some punts as a freshman, and highly touted five-star Mecole Hardman, who played sparingly as a freshman, will lead the return game contenders. Hardman could also be a big-play threat for the Bulldogs offensively. Herrien and Swift could figure on kickoffs as well.
As the depth continues to improve, the special teams figure to be the same.
For Georgia to beat Tech and play for the SEC Championship, the Dogs must consistently make the reasonable distance field goals and improve greatly in the return game exchange. Both contributed to the Vandy loss and led to Tennessee’s Hail Mary heart-breaking comeback in Athens.
Having Hall of Fame legend Kevin Butler back on board is a huge boost. The greatest college football kicker ever and one of the best in NFL annals had a huge impact on last year’s squad. Another year under his tutelage will help even more, and having his expertise to lean on is an enormous advantage for Smart and special teams coach Shane Beamer, who’s dad knows a thing or two about the kicking game.
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