ATHENS -- Ramik Wilson’s eyes got wide for a moment, and he cocked his head.
“He said that?” Wilson said.
Then he laughed.
“Oh, no,” he said, shaking his head. “It’s humbling to hear it.”
Entering this year, Wilson just wanted stability. Put him at one position and stick with it. A starting spot was nice, too. His name on the lips of NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper. It apparently still is.
But a look at the SEC statistics, and there is Wilson’s name, leading the way in tackles. In fact it’s not even close: Georgia’s junior inside linebacker has 119, which is 22 more than second place. Throw in four sacks, and Wilson might just be an All-SEC candidate.
That’s pretty good for someone who hadn’t started a game his first two years and wasn’t considered the best inside linebacker on his team.
But this hasn’t been a good season overall for Georgia’s defense, which is on track to give up the points in program history. Even after yielding a season-low 211 yards to Kentucky, the Bulldogs rank seventh in the SEC in total defense.
So are the tackles just an indication of the defense’s problems -- i.e. being on the field too much -- rather than Wilson’s ability?
Georgia inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti literally snickered when presented that idea.
“I mean, tackles are tackles,” Olivadotti said. “He has things that he can work on, but he’s getting guys on the ground, and that’s kind of a big part of the job description.
“I didn’t realize that was the perception out there. Thank goodness I don’t read stuff.”
It is true that Wilson and the Georgia defense has been on the field more than most teams: 761 plays this season, more than all but four other SEC teams.
But Wilson has more tackles than anybody on those other four teams or anybody else on Georgia. That includes fellow junior Amarlo Herrera, who is fourth in the SEC with 95 tackles.
Herrera has been playing for three years, and starting for most of those. Wilson had to wait his turn, not even sure of his position. Sometimes in practice he would literally jog from the inside linebackers to the outside linebackers, his head on a swivel.
In Georgia’s base 4-3 defense, Wilson was the second-team outside linebacker. The first teamer was Jarvis Jones.
In Georgia’s nickel defense, which it used more than 60 percent of the time, Wilson was the second-team inside linebacker. The first teamer was Alec Ogletree.
“It was tough, real tough. But you’ve gotta have faith,” Wilson said. “Some dudes get thrown right in, like Amarlo. First day, the first time he stepped on this campus he got thrown in. I’m like, ‘What about me?’ But everything happens for a reason. I just stayed patient, stayed humble, and I knew my time was gonna come.”
It finally did this spring, when coaches put him at inside linebacker, next to Herrera, and told him he’d stay there.
Wilson said he never considered transferring and didn’t need a heart-to-hear talk with the coaches.
“I knew who I was behind. All-American Jarvis Jones. I wasn’t worried. I learned from him. I learned all his moves, especially because I’ve been coming off the edge. I even look like him sometimes,” Wilson said, alluding to his dreadlocks.
“I pushed him for his spot. I came out and tried to take his spot.”
Wait, he pushed Jarvis Jones for his spot?
“I knew it wasn’t gonna happen,” Wilson said, grinning. “But it made me better. It got me prepared. It’s a great thing to learn from, to be behind someone like that. And Tree too, when I got moved inside. I learned so much from him too.”
Jones and Ogletree were first-round picks. Wilson has a long way to go to get in that conversation, but ESPN’s Kiper did recently mention Wilson as a prospect. Wilson, who has one year of eligibility remaining, didn’t sound like he had any plans to leave early, but he was gratified to be mentioned.
It’s another payoff to patience. Wilson compared himself to Hutson Mason, who takes over as the starting quarterback this week against Georgia Tech.
“I’ve been patient, just like Hutson. And I’ve been preparing for my moment,” Mason said. “I gotta keep getting better. Because I’ve got great freshman linebackers who are trying to come for my spot. So I’ve gotta keep working, and try to be the best linebacker I can be. Everything else will take care of itself.”