ATHENS — With just two healthy options on a depth chart that normally should run at least six deep, Georgia’s coaches have had to get a little creative at the defensive end position this spring.
First, they moved Kiante Tripp from the offensive line over to the other side of the ball. Tripp’s transition was meant to fill out the ranks while Rod Battle and Neland Ball and Cornelius Washington recovered from injuries. But then Demarcus Dobbs went down with a broken foot and Jeremy Longo suffered a shoulder injury that ended his spring, and suddenly Mark Richt was left trying to remember the names of the two walk-on tight ends who were now serving as Georgia’s second-team pass rushers.
Never mind the details. At this point, it’s just about having enough players to practice.
“You can’t give excuses,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. “We’re not in the business of that. We’re in the business of coaching, trying to make them better and just trying to find someone who’s healthy and can help us succeed.”
Tripp’s move to defensive end has provided some instant results, with the athletic lineman bringing a bundle of enthusiasm and plenty of size and strength over from the offensive line.
“He’s definitely had a lot more enthusiasm playing that spot,” quarterback Joe Cox said. “He looks good, he rushes well, he’s a strong guy, and he’s made a bunch of plays this spring.”
Tripp had a sack in Saturday’s scrimmage, but it was Georgia’s other healthy pass rusher who made the biggest impression. Justin Houston showed glimpses of potential last season, but he has taken his game to the next level this spring, Richt said. In Saturday’s scrimmage, Houston recorded sacks on each of the first two plays of the day. He had four tackles and even picked off a pass, returning the interception 30 yards for a touchdown.
For all the success both Houston and Tripp have enjoyed this spring, Martinez said the coaches have to be cautious not to overwork their only two ends still standing.
“You have to be careful, too, of the amount of reps that the guys who are out there are getting,” Martinez said. “That’s when fatigue sets in and you have injuries. So we have to be careful how we practice, but we just have to keep on sawing wood and try to get something accomplished each and every day, and I think the guys have done a good job of that.”
Sawing a big chunk of the wood this spring has been the job of a bevy of Bulldogs who didn’t figure on playing much defensive end just a few weeks ago.
Before Georgia’s first scrimmage of the season, linebacker Darryl Gamble was minding his own business in the defensive meeting room when his coaches pointed a finger in his direction and informed him he’d be playing the role of rush end during the day’s practice.
“OK,” said Gamble, who hadn’t played on the defensive line since elementary school. “Are you going to show me what to do first?”
Gamble’s size, speed and experience made him the obvious choice to fill a need at pass rusher, he said, and as it turned out, his performance wasn’t half bad.
“We watched it on film, and it looked good having a little extra rush in, a little faster guy coming off the edge,” he said.
While the move wasn’t exactly one Gamble was prepared for, he said he has been doing a little extra homework on how the defensive ends operate since then. In the film room, Gamble has checked out a few old copies of David Pollack’s best performances, hoping to mimic some of the moves employed by the former Georgia great.
If Gamble’s work pays off, he might just see some action as a stand-up rusher this fall, too, particularly in nickel packages, Richt said, and that’s a plan Gamble can get behind — even if he did feel the need to knock on some wood before joining the ranks of the seemingly cursed defensive ends.
“I think it’s a scheme that we’ll probably use,” Gamble said. “It looks good, and it will help us more than it will hurt us, and we’ll get more guys rested.”
Whoever said necessity was the mother of invention must have had the Bulldogs’ defensive line in mind, but Martinez said the spring has always been about trying out a few new looks. Some of them work, some of them do not. It’s just that it’s usually a plan the coaches had in mind for a while rather than a drastic maneuver intended to simply carry the defense through another practice.
“You’re always doing certain things in the spring, just trying to evaluate guys, evaluate a scheme,” Martinez said. “You’re just looking at new things, and it’s not uncommon.”
Despite Gamble’s nearly 40 reps as a pass rusher during last week’s scrimmage, Martinez had even more to do.
While the end position has been haunted by the myriad injuries, his tackles have remained healthy. So by the end of the scrimmage, senior tackles Geno Atkins and Kade Weston — all 325 pounds of him — were lining up at defensive end just to finish out the practice.
It may have looked a bit strange, but it was a beautiful sight for fellow tackle Jeff Owens, who said he’s planning to push for the formation to be used in an actual game. An Owens-Atkins-Weston pass rush, he said, would be as unstoppable as it is unlikely.
But most of the spring tricks and trials are just that, Martinez said. Once the fall rolls around — and more importantly, once Georgia gets its long list of bruised and battered pass rushers back from injury — things usually go back to normal.
That doesn’t mean Owens won’t still try to make his sales pitch, defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. He’ll just have a little extra convincing to do.
“He’ll need to talk to Coach Martinez about that,” Garner said, “but it sounds interesting.”