ATHENS -- Mike Gilliard had to wait to arrive at this moment, and in a few weeks, he might be waiting again. For now, however, the Georgia junior is basking in it.
Especially when he heard from his former teammate.
Akeem Dent came in a couple of years ahead of Gilliard at Georgia, but the two quickly bonded. They were both inside linebackers. Dent was established as one of the Bulldogs’ key players and saw something in Gilliard, the three-star prospect out of Valdosta.
“Mike is like one of my little brothers,” Dent said. “We had a big brother, little brother kind of program going on, and he was my little brother when he first got in.”
Dent is now a rookie with the Atlanta Falcons, who picked him in the third round of this year’s draft. He has played in three games as he tries to break into the lineup of an established defense. In other words, he can sympathize with Gilliard’s plight for much of the past three years.
Gilliard has played in plenty of games, but he didn’t take a major role until the third game of this season. And that was only after injuries to both starters at his position, first Alec Ogletree and then Christian Robinson.
But, as defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has said often this season, “injury creates opportunity.” Gilliard has pounced on the chance and now leads Georgia with 40 tackles and on Monday was named the SEC defensive player of the week.
“I just felt like it was my time to step up and go out there and make plays,” Gilliard said. “So I did all the extra stuff: Watched film, went the extra mile at practice and things like that. So when I went out there, I tried to make plays. I give credit to my coaches for giving me an opportunity to go out there and make plays.”
Making those plays may be creating a dilemma for the Bulldogs, who are expecting to have Ogletree and Robinson both back healthy in the near future.
Robinson is already back, although the defensive captain only played but did not start the past two games. Once his foot is fully healthy he should be due for a majority of the snaps at the “Mike” spot, where Gilliard began the year as the second-teamer.
Ogletree, who broke his foot in the opener against Boise State, is on target to return Oct. 29 against Florida. Once he can play without pain, it would be hard to foresee Ogletree not seeing the majority of snaps, too.
So what to do with Gilliard?
“We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it,” inside linebackers coach Kirk Olividatti said, smiling. “At this point, everything changes from week to week. ... I have a plan in the back of my mind but that could change in one play -- kind of like in the Boise game, everything changed in one play.”
Gilliard has at least raised the standard for the first-teamers. Robinson said that Olividatti told his unit that “Mike G had messed it up to where the level is raised.”
Gilliard didn’t grow up a Georgia fan. He said he alternated between rooting for Florida State and Miami, but when the Bulldogs recruited him, he was too attracted to the tradition to turn it down.
Then he arrived and the waiting began. He did play, but mostly on special teams or in blowouts. Two years ago, Dent was the middle linebacker in the 4-3 defense, and then it was Dent, Robinson and the since-departed Marcus Dowtin getting most of the snaps in last year’s 3-4 defense.
“I think he’s come a long way, from seeing him when he got there as a young guy and now seeing him produce the way he is,” Dent said. “Things like that are what make me proud to see that he’s doing the things that he’s doing. I told him the other day to just keep it up and the sky’s the limit.”
Gilliard said he heard from a lot of people after his performance at Tennessee -- when he had a career-high 12 tackles and a sack. But the words from Dent stood out the most.
“Akeem, I call him my big brother,” Gilliard said. “Before the season he just told me to go out there and make plays. When he was here I looked up to him. Every time I had trouble with something I came to Akeem and he helped me out. I feel like Akeem, he’s of those guys that’s always been by my side.”
Jay Adams of AtlantaFalcons.com contributed to this story.