Georgia football head coach Kirby Smart continually expressed concern for his defensive line throughout the spring, stating the need for more size and competitive attitude at the position.
With how things went from the beginning to end of spring practice, however, Smart probably doesn’t feel too reassured with what he’s working with.
It’s not that the position group is void of any talent. But after three arrests, two injuries and one dismissal, Smart has had a lot to deal with. The defensive line also lost Sterling Bailey, Chris Mayes, James DeLoach and Josh Dawson, and that kind of veteran experience and leadership will be tough to overcome.
But there’s still a lot to like about what Georgia has returning. A lot of athleticism and power does exist up front. It’s just a matter of earning game experience and tapping into each individual’s potential.
Players expected in the rotation: DT Trent Thompson, DT DaQuan Hawkins, DT John Atkins, DE Jonathan Ledbetter, DE Michael Barnett, DE Justin Young, DL Julian Rochester (freshman), DL Michail Carter (freshman), DL Tyler Clark (freshman)
How they fared in the spring: This group did not have a good spring from an off-field and injury perspective. To start, Chauncey Rivers was expected to be a big contributor up front. A third drug-related arrest, however, would mark the end of his career at Georgia.
Rochester was arrested, along with since-dismissed cornerback Chad Clay, for possessing a BB gun in a dorm and criminal damage to property. Ledbetter was arrested on an alcohol-related charge but had his case thrown out, which might alter the one-game suspension handed down to him.
Barnett and Hawkins both tweaked their knees, relegating them to the sideline toward the end of the spring. Both are expected to be ready by preseason practice.
It’s also a young unit as last year’s defensive line featured four contributors who have since graduated from the program. Atkins is the oldest as a fourth-year junior, with every other contributing lineman being in their first or second season at Georgia.
The group is talented, however, with Thompson possessing a ton of upside after playing quite a bit as a freshman. Carter and Clark, along with early enrollee Rochester, will have every opportunity to crack the rotation.
What to watch in August: Defensive line coach Tracy Rocker experimented with a lot of packages throughout the spring, mixing and matching his personnel. It will be worth watching to see if Rocker settles on a core three or four up front.
That stated, the Bulldogs likely will need to rotate on a lot of bodies early in the season. Therefore, it could be tough for Rocker to limit his options when he has nine able-bodied linemen to choose from. The biggest concern is how well the interior linemen do, as Smart has previously said he needs more size up front.
That could lead to Rochester playing quite a bit as a freshman, considering he fits the bill at 6-foot-5 and 327 pounds.
Breakout candidate: While he could miss the season-opener against North Carolina, Ledbetter is the pick for Georgia’s breakout candidate on the defensive line. Up until his arrest, Ledbetter was running with the first team and offers a pass-rushing presence as a down lineman.
With Rivers’ dismissal, Ledbetter could be relied upon even more at this spot. Ledbetter was used sparingly in 2015, appearing in seven games and totaling four tackles.
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