Veterans ready to step up for Georgia defense

semerson@macon.comApril 3, 2013 

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 I’m old,” Herrera said. “I’m the oldest person out here, all these young guys who don’t get banged up that much, who are fresh.”

Most of the curiosity around Georgia’s spring practice, and focus among fans and coaches in Saturday’s spring game, will be on the young and unproven players who will dominate the defensive lineup.

But it’s very possible that the overall stoutness of the defense will be determined by Herrera and Georgia’s 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 team’s leading returning tackler, and he will man the middle of the defense, basically serving as its captain.

“We’re looking for leadership, and Amarlo is trying to provide that,” head coach Mark Richt said. “He’s 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 he’s 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, he’s 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 he’s still only a freshman academically and several of the early enrollees are actually older than him.

“It feels weird,” Jenkins said. “I feel like I’m 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 he’s been under the wing of these veteran lineman, and all of the sudden these veterans leave, and he’s it,” Richt said. “He’s had to be the teacher and the leader now. I think he’s really tried to embrace that role. He’s a guy that earned playing time when there were a lot of good veteran players because he played hard, and he’s continuing to do that.”

Finally there’s Damian Swann, who moves into the role of No. 1 cornerback, expected to line up against the other team’s 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 doesn’t have to prove to anybody that he’s a very good football player because he’s already proved that,” Richt said. “Now it’s just a matter of, ‘Can I lead and can I become the very best football player?’ I think that’s 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.

He smiled.

“Yeah, we have to,” he said. “Because we have the most game experience, in big games and in winning games. So we have to.”

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