ATHENS -- Amarlo Herrera said he felt like a shy youngster the past two years at Georgia. All around him were veterans of four, sometimes five years, some of them All-Americans, and the best thing for Herrera to do was shut up and play.
Then on the first day of spring practice last month, it was a completely different feeling.
Now he was the wily veteran and one of the very few.
Man Im old, Herrera said. Im the oldest person out here, all these young guys who dont get banged up that much, who are fresh.
Most of the curiosity around Georgias spring practice, and focus among fans and coaches in Saturdays spring game, will be on the young and unproven players who will dominate the defensive lineup.
But its very possible that the overall stoutness of the defense will be determined by Herrera and Georgias other three returning starters. They are the ones most likely to provide the star power that the unit had the past two years.
Herrera might not have the spectacular playmaking ability of Alec Ogletree, a fellow inside linebacker who could be a first-round pick in the NFL draft later this month. But Herrera is the teams leading returning tackler, and he will man the middle of the defense, basically serving as its captain.
Were looking for leadership, and Amarlo is trying to provide that, head coach Mark Richt said. Hes still got a way to go to be a dominant football player. You want your middle backers to be really physical and dominating in the way they go about their business, but hes still got some work to do in my opinion on that area. But as far as knowing what to do and getting people lined up, hes certainly doing a good job of that.
One player who could be on the verge of dominance is Jordan Jenkins, the outside linebacker who was second on the team in sacks last year. Jenkins is setting the goal at a minimum of 10 sacks this season, and the team might need it, with Jarvis Jones taking his talents to the NFL.
Jenkins echoed Herrera in feeling like one of the veterans -- even though hes still only a freshman academically and several of the early enrollees are actually older than him.
It feels weird, Jenkins said. I feel like Im with the upperclassmen.
Then he smiled and added, Somewhat.
Garrison Smith is definitely an upperclassmen. In fact, the defensive end figures to be the only senior starter on the 2013 defense, unless Chase Vasser or T.J. Stripling earns a spot at outside linebacker or Connor Norman at safety.
Smith might not put up the numbers expected of Jenkins or Herrera, but he will need to be the dependable rock on an extremely inexperienced defensive line.
His whole career hes been under the wing of these veteran lineman, and all of the sudden these veterans leave, and hes it, Richt said. Hes had to be the teacher and the leader now. I think hes really tried to embrace that role. Hes a guy that earned playing time when there were a lot of good veteran players because he played hard, and hes continuing to do that.
Finally theres Damian Swann, who moves into the role of No. 1 cornerback, expected to line up against the other teams top receiver. Swann, a highly rated recruit two years ago, was good enough as a sophomore to force his way into the starting lineup, supplanting a senior.
If Swann can be the lock-down cornerback many on the team think he can be, that will be a huge lift to a secondary set to feature mainly underclassmen.
He really doesnt have to prove to anybody that hes a very good football player because hes already proved that, Richt said. Now its just a matter of, Can I lead and can I become the very best football player? I think thats his mindset.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham might quibble a bit with the idea that these four are his only returning starters. Grantham has pointed to Norman and others as having starting experience. And it is true that some others have starting spots in a game here or there. Vasser has five career starts.
But Herrera, Swann, Smith and Jenkins are the only four who finished last season as starters and were first-teamers more than half of the season.
Herrera was asked this week if he and the few veterans could carry the defense this year.
Yeah, we have to, he said. Because we have the most game experience, in big games and in winning games. So we have to.