ATHENS - The return of Alec Ogletree was expected to bolster the Georgia defense, and despite the struggles of the past two games, it would be hard to argue Ogletree has been at fault. After all, he averaged 11 tackles in those two games.
But there has been one little-noticed casualty of Ogletree's return: It has shifted Mike Gilliard, a senior and the team's main signal-caller at linebacker, to a lesser role.
Gilliard was the team's third-leading tackler last year, behind just Shawn Williams and Jarvis Jones. This year he ranks fourth, even after a diminished role against Tennessee and South Carolina. Perhaps more importantly, he was the "Mike" inside linebacker much of last year, and the first four games this year. Why is that role important? Because the "Mike" is assigned more of a leadership role, sort of a captain of the front seven.
During the first four games, while Ogletree was suspended, Gilliard played the "Mike" while sophomore Amarlo Herrera played the "Mo" inside linebacker. But Herrera played so well, leading the team in tackles, that when Ogletree returned, the coaches moved Herrera to the "Mike" and Gilliard moved to the bench, at least most of the time.
“Personally, I went from taking about 60, 70 to like 20-25 (snaps)," Gilliard said on Tuesday. "These past couple weeks, it’s definitely been frustrating on me. But I’m playing the cards that I’m dealt, and I’m just still trying to do anything to help the team win. That’s a part of the game sometimes. I’m just here to keep doing what I’m doing, keep grinding, keep trying to help the team win.”
The transition from Mo to Mike (I'll dispense with the quotation marks now) has been rough at times for Herrera. He pointed to a communication flub he made at the end of the first half against Tennessee, allowing the Volunteers to score on a screen pass to the tailback.
Gilliard was asked if he felt having two players who mainly played the Mo was any part of the problem the past couple games.
“I’m really not sure. Amarlo, since he’s playing Mike linebacker, if he needed help with anything I’d definitely try to help him," Gilliard said. "The only thing that I personally can focus on is me, myself, being a better Mike linebacker. And shoot, if Amarlo’s out on the field and he needs help with anything I’m definitely gonna reach my hand out to try to help.”
To be fair, it’s a conundrum for the Georgia defensive coaches: Gilliard wasn’t playing badly, Herrera was just playing better. Ogletree is too much of a playmaker to not play. So do you roll with the Gilliard-Ogletree combination for comfort reasons, or roll with Herrera-Ogletree, hoping to get Herrera acquainted with the new position as quickly as possible?
But Kirk Olivadotti, the inside linebackers coach, said it's not quite as simple as that. For one thing, Gilliard has played. As Olivadotti sees it, Herrera is the Mike in certain packages, and Gilliard in other packages, and who plays is dictated by what package is being utilized.
"It's just what the game has dictated," Olivadotti said. "In all reality Mike and Amarlo are both starters, it just depends what the packages dictate what we're playing. ...
"Mike is somebody who's always going to play hard, he's going to play physical, he's going to play tough. And so is Amarlo. They're both gonna do those things and they're both going to bring excitement. They're always going to run around and do those kinds of things. They've both earned the right to play and that's why they're both playing."
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said the plan this winter, prior to Ogletree's suspension, was to get Herrera ready to play the Mike. They felt Herrera and Ogletree may be the best combination, although Gilliard and Robinson remained in the plans - and Robinson has continued to play on most obvious passing downs.
But when Ogletree's suspension came down, Grantham said the decision was made to keep Herrera at the Mo (or the Money, as Grantham calls it sometimes).
"Because when Tree wasn't available, having Amarlo play the Money was critical to play against Missouri and Vanderbilt," Grantham said. "To be honest if he hadn't done that, we'd have had a hard time in those games."
Herrera played very well, which Grantham said validated what they thought all along about playing him more.
"But then when Tree came back, it was kind of, 'All right, how do we get him involved in the game.' So then we went back to our original plan that was altered by the first four games," Grantham said.
Grantham acknowledged that it meant Herrera would be a bit behind on aspects of playing the Mike, and Herrera used that example from the Tennessee game.
"That's all right," Grantham said. "That's why we practice, that's why we get better."
Gilliard may be frustrated, but there is some irony to his situation: The very reason he started last year was because of injuries to Ogletree and Christian Robinson. And like Herrera this year, Gilliard held his starting spot when the starters returned, sending Robinson to a diminished role.
“I just feel like that’s a part of the game, sometimes like that," Gilliard said. "It’s kind of frustrating. But at the same time, I’m just trying to be a team guy, and just doing my part and doing whatever it takes to help the team win.”