Jonathan Taylor’s dismissal this week didn’t exactly blow up the preseason depth chart for Georgia’s defensive line. He was only listed as a third-teamer at nose tackle and didn’t start any games last year.
But the impact of the mammoth defensive lineman will still be felt. It could be worse in the long-term, as Taylor had NFL written all over him. Even in the short term, a few injuries this year and now depth is a real problem, and Taylor was the kind of player who could have made a big sophomore-year leap.
Plus, no starting spot on Georgia’s defensive line was absolutely set, so Taylor had almost as much chance as anybody to grab a spot this preseason.
So with Taylor out, here’s how the front line appears entering preseason practice:
STARTER: James DeLoach, Jr.
OTHERS RETURNING: Toby Johnson, Sr.; John Atkins, R-Fr.
NEW GUYS: Lorenzo Carter, Fr.; Keyon Brown, Fr.
WHAT TO WATCH: In a macabre bit of irony, Taylor’s troubles increase the chance that DeLoach – his high school teammate and fellow check double-dipper – will start. Taylor was one of the players that new D-line coach Tracy Rocker was trying at end and tackle, Johnson and Atkins being a couple more. (Rocker, much like predecessor Chris Wilson, plans to mix up the personnel depending on the package. Georgia is likely to have four down linemen much of the time, and the situation will dictate whether the ends are outside pass rushers – meaning Carter or even an outside linebacker such as Jordan Jenkins – or a bigger lineman, such as Johnson.) DeLoach is more of a traditional end, weighing in at about 265 pounds, and while he’s struggled to see the field his first two seasons, he had a breakthrough spring, one of the few players that defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt praised. Johnson, meanwhile, came to campus last year with a lot of hype, but last year only had seven tackles and no starts. Carter is going to play somewhere, that’s pretty much certain. It’s just a matter of whether it’s at end or linebacker; it will probably be a bit of both. Brown could also be a factor, and Taylor’s dismissal enhances the chances he won’t redshirt – but with a decent amount of depth, he still might.
STARTER(S): Chris Mayes, Jr. and/or Mike Thornton, Sr.
OTHERS RETURNING: Johnson, Atkins.
NEW GUYS: Lamont Galliard, Fr.
WHAT TO WATCH: Georgia is still a 3-4 base defense, but much of the time it will be in a 4-2-5, as it was during the last few years under Todd Grantham. (The differences between Grantham and Pruitt are less scheme-oriented than philosophical, if you haven’t figured that out by now.) But as mentioned earlier, that doesn’t necessarily mean the two inside guys will be nose tackles. One of them usually will be, however, meaning Mayes and Thornton are still in competition with each other for playing time. Mayes seems on the verge of a breakthrough, after quietly becoming one of Georgia’s top linemen last year. He’s also now the heaviest with Taylor gone. Thornton, a fifth-year senior, brings knowledge and experience. Johnson and Atkins should also be a factor inside. And then there’s Galliard, who committed under Grantham, but followed through on signing after the coaching change, and will also get a shot this August.
STARTER: Sterling Bailey, Jr.
OTHERS RETURNING: Ray Drew, Sr.; Josh Dawson, Jr.
NEW GUYS: Carter, Brown.
WHAT TO WATCH: Bailey and Drew have been competing against each other for awhile now, and while Drew seemed to finally emerge last season, his stock took a hit during the spring and is now third string on the team’s preseason depth chart. But even Rocker admitted that Drew is going to play, it’s just a matter of how much. Drew did have six sacks last year, although four of them came in two games (Missouri and Tennessee). Bailey only had one sack and only one tackle-for-loss, while Drew had eight. But Bailey did start eight games on a pretty solid unit last year. They’re both going to play, as is Carter, as we mentioned before. Dawson, who like DeLoach has yet to play much, was also moved down from outside linebacker and appears to be benefitting from the move. He is second team on the team’s preseason depth chart, and likely has a good shot at cracking the line rotation.
FINAL BONUS THOUGHT: Conservatively, you can count on seven players (DeLoach, Mayes, Bailey, Thornton, Drew, Carter, Johnson) for the rotation, with Dawson and others capable of playing. That’s why Taylor’s departure isn’t a depth killer yet. The question is how much the unit is suffering now in pure overall talent. Is there a sure NFL draft pick remaining in this bunch? That very much remains to be seen.
Next up: Linebackers.