John Atkins was an unsung hero for doing the dirty work up front.
Atkins wasn’t one to light up the stat sheet. A starter in every game, he finished his senior season with 38 total tackles and zero sacks. But what he was tasked to do instead was take on multiple defenders to clear space for Georgia’s inside linebackers to make plays. For as great as Roquan Smith was at inside linebacker, Atkins was almost, if not equally, as valuable.
With Atkins gone at nose tackle, this might be the most overlooked position to fill on this roster. But that doesn’t mean Georgia can’t do it. For as important as Atkins was, the Bulldogs have plenty of big and talented players to plug in his place.
They also will have five weeks during spring practice to look at who might best fit Atkins’ role moving forward.
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And with that in mind, the defensive line is a position group loaded in talent from top to bottom on the depth chart. Georgia will once again look to stay fresh up front by being able to rotate eight or nine players. But getting the same kind of attention Atkins demanded as a senior will be critical for Georgia’s success on the defensive front.
They left: Atkins, Trenton Thompson
They return: Jonathan Ledbetter (Sr.), Tyler Clark (Jr.), Julian Rochester (Jr.), Michail Carter (Jr.), Malik Herring (Soph.), Michael Barnett (Jr.), DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle (Sr.), Justin Young (Jr.)
Enrolled early: Devonte Wyatt (Soph. – junior college transfer)
On the way: Jordan Davis, Tramel Walthour
What to watch: Rochester came to Georgia with great expectations, and he has proven to be a reliable player in Georgia’s rotation. But as a junior, and at 6-foot-5 and 300 pounds, it is time for him to take on Atkins’ role and demand those double teams inside. Rochester rotated a good bit at nose tackle last season and appears to be the heir apparent at the position. Clark could see some time at the nose too, although he did a great job over the second half of the season getting after the passer as a defensive tackle.
Clark’s emergence as a sophomore should help offset Thompson’s decision to enter the NFL draft. Clark had 2.5 sacks among his 41 total tackles last season. At defensive end, Jonathan Ledbetter emerged as a leader during his junior season and figures to be the go-to presence now that Atkins has graduated. Ledbetter was able to tally 2.5 sacks in 2017.
Another defensive lineman to watch is Michael Barnett, who steadily rose up the depth chart to earn quality playing time over the final stretch of the 2017 season. The only defensive tackle to enroll early was Wyatt, who was initially a member of the 2017 recruiting class. Wyatt spent his first college football season at Hutchinson (Kansas) Community College before transferring to Georgia in December.
Outlook: A major strength of Georgia’s defensive line is its depth. While the starting three possess great talent, the fact that it can rotate two or three players at each position without much drop-off is an advantage most teams don’t have. No one wants to lose a productive player of Atkins’ caliber. But the Bulldogs should be just fine with who they return up front on the defensive line.