Progress is being made, but more big bodies needed on the D-line
Think back to last January’s national championship game between the Georgia Bulldogs and the Alabama Crimson Tide … certainly a remembrance that the Bulldog Nation is not fond of doing.
But there were the Bulldogs, leading the Tide by 13-0 at the half and by still 20-10 at the end of the third quarter and seemingly on their way to the school’s first national crown since the 1980 season.
Then, however, the bottom fell out for the team that had conquered Oklahoma the previous week in the Rose Bowl. Alabama tallied 10 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to send the game into overtime at 20-20 and after surrendering a 51-yard field goal to Georgia’s Rodrigo Blankenship to start the extra period, Nick Saban’s team ended it with a dagger to the Bulldogs’ gut, freshman quarterback Tua Tagovailoa hurling a 41-yard touchdown pass to a wide-open DeVonta Smith, another freshman, to deal Georgia a heart-wrenching 26-23 defeat. The winning play was the only time Alabama led the game.
Many observers surmised the Bulldogs, who had played brilliantly for three quarters, simply ran out of gas in the fourth quarter and overtime period, what with Saban continually running in fresh linemen on both sides of the ball and many Georgia linemen simply looking exhausted after an intense three quarters of play plus coming off such an emotional double-overtime win and an overnight flight from the Rose Bowl just seven days earlier.
You’re not going to get any Bulldog players or coaches to admit the team was worn down in the trenches in the final minutes of the national championship game but, without question, Alabama’s superior depth in the offensive and defensive lines was most instrumental in the Tide’s stirring comeback that night in Mercedes-Benz Stadium.
And Georgia head coach Kirby Smart, without conceding that the Bulldog were a bit fatigued late in that game, said there’s no question his program must continue to bring in more quality and quantity up front, especially in the defensive line.
“Yeah, Alabama ran the ball on us well, especially late in the game,” Smart said. “It wasn’t so much in the overtime (went Tide connected on winning TD pass) but more in the fourth quarter and we’ve certainly got to get better at defending that, especially against big, physical people like them and like our offense. But the way to do that is you’ve got to have big people to combat big people with and we don’t have a lot of big guys,” he said. “So we’re looking to recruit. We’re trying to find 290-pound-plus guys that can help us become more stout. For us to play the way we want to play, we’ve got to have physical guys in there.”
And not only does Smart want the Bulldogs to get bigger on the defensive front, he says Georgia is badly hurting in the depth department.
“We’re struggling a little bit defensively on the defensive line,” said Smart. “We just don’t have as much depth and we’re not as physical as we need to be. It’s something we have to rectify and we definitely need some help on the depth of the defensive line. I think the key is going to be staying healthy,” he said. “Losing two guys like John (Atkins] and Trenton (Thompson), I don’t think you’d think it would have that much affect but we really only gained one in Devonte Wyatt, so the subtle effect of that with Michael Barnett being ruled out (with injury) has put us short.”
Junior tight end Isaac Nauta said he didn’t want to speculate whether the defensive line was gassed a bit against Alabama’s deep offensive front in the fourth quarter of the title game. “I thought the defense played pretty well but at this point it’s a whole new team and we’re completely past that so we’re focused on what we’ve got now,” Nauta said. And Nauta thinks the defensive line is fast building good depth for the approaching 2018 campaign.
“We’ve got a lot of guys there,” he said. “Jon Ledbetter, he’s a beast, an older guy who’s been holding it down. Devonte Wyatt (rising sophomore) has shown some promising stuff. He’s a real fast, athletic big kid, strong. We’ve got guys all over the place and a lot of good competition so that’s probably the best thing I can take away from this spring, that we’ve got a ton of guys competing at a lot of spots,” said Nauta.” For us, that’s good because it means you’ve got a lot of guys that can play. So the defensive line is definitely going to be a strong point for us,”
Most certainly, Georgia’s defensive front got an added boost recently with the acquisition of Jay Hayes, a graduate transfer from Notre Dame. The 6-3, 290-pound Hayes had a season-high seven tackles for the Irish in the game against the Bulldogs last fall. In total, Hayes accumulated 27 tackles, including 3.5 for loss, during 13 games in his junior season. Hayes was a 4-star defensive tackle in the Class of 2013 coming out of Poly Prep in Brooklyn, N.Y. That’s the same high school that produced Georgia offensive tackle Isaiah Wilson.
The way Smart and his staff have recruited for the offensive line these past couple of years, lack of depth in that area is fast becoming a thing of the past.
“Every time I look over I have to look up at those guys,” said Nauta. “But we’ve got a bunch of big boys this year and I don’t think that’s going to change around here for a while. That’s the kind of guys Coach Smart likes to recruit. And it definitely helps … we’ve got a bunch of big, athletic guys who can move, too. But they’re all doing good and I like what I’m seeing out of the O-line. We’ve got a chance to be real big and physical,” said Nauta.