ATHENS -- When Georgia opened spring practice, Mike Gilliard was third at one inside linebacker spot, behind newcomer Jarvis Jones and converted running back Richard Samuel.
When Georgia went into August, Gilliard was second at another linebacking spot, behind Christian Robinson.
Few preseason stories about Georgia’s defense mentioned him. After all, he was pretty much a body that, for the third straight year, would simply spell a starter for a half-dozen plays per game and get some mop-up duty or special teams work.
In two seasons, he had 15 total tackles and nothing in any other defensive stat category.
“Eventually, it was going to come out,” Gilliard said. “I knew I had it in me.”
Now, the 6-foot-2, 220-pounder enters Saturday’s SEC championship game against LSU as the Bulldogs’ second-leading tackler, impressive considering the junior’s starting debut came in Georgia’s third game of his junior season.
“No one on the team doubted Mike,” defensive end and Northside product Abry Jones said. “When things came down to it, with him coming in out of nowhere, he really stepped up.”
While fairly soft-spoken, Gilliard has the confidence of a linebacker, of somebody who played high school ball in one of the nation’s hotbeds, at Valdosta. He knew he was a bit under the radar entering the season and was just waiting his turn.
“I’m happy where I’m at now,” Gilliard said. “I’m just ready to play on Saturday. I just worked hard and when I got my opportunity, made the best of it.”
He has been ready to play every Saturday since getting the call to start in the third week against Coastal Carolina, his role growing every Saturday after injuries to Alec Ogletree and Robinson.
“He really transformed himself into a guy to read things, tell the D-line what to do, make calls, stuff like that,” Jones said. “It’s a big step. I think he’s handling it real well.”
Gilliard talks like a veteran starter, knowing the Bulldogs can’t let their heads get too full of thinking about any negatives plays they may make against LSU.
“They’re the No. 1 team in the country,” he said. “Things are going to happen. They’re going to make plays. When things (like) that happen, just let it go, play the next down. Play the next down as hard as you can.”
That’s worked for Gilliard, who has averaged 5.9 tackles a game since taking over as a starter. He had 12 stops against Tennessee -- earning him SEC defensive player of the week honors -- nine against Mississippi State and eight against Coastal Carolina in that first start.
How far Gilliard has come is evident by some inside competition with Ogletree, who started before suffering a foot injury early in the Boise State game.
“Whoever gets the most tackles,” Gilliard said. “Usually game by game. The last two games, he (won). When he first came back, I won.”
Ogletree won the battle 10-4 in the Georgia Tech game and 8-5 in the Kentucky win, and -- Gilliard forgot -- against Auburn, when Gilliard was actually shut out and Olgetree had six.
Gilliard isn’t fancy or dominant, but is perhaps more in the mold of Tony Gilbert, the former Central standout who is 10th on Georgia’s all-time tackle list, or somebody else Gilliard is very familiar with.
“Randall Godfrey’s from my hometown,” Gilliard said of Georgia’s No. 8 tackler. “Just watching him play, and looking up to him, he was a guy who always made plays, just ran to the ball.”
For all of the talk about LSU’s defense, Gilliard knows that the Tigers’ offense has obviously played a huge role in their success, and he’s more than ready for that up-close look.
“Oh yeah, I mean, shoot,” he said. “Just watching film of their offense, I really understand why those guys are ranked so high. They have great wide receivers, two really good quarterbacks and four really good running backs. Just matching up against these guys, we have something to prove as a defense.”
That Gilliard will be in the middle of the action indicates that Georgia’s defense does have the depth and talent of those units getting more attention.
“I trust all those guys on the field with me,” Gilliard said. “We’re excited to play an offense like this, the No. 1 team in the country. This is a great opportunity to show the country what Georgia’s defense is about.”