UGA looks to linebackers to help fix is pass-rush problems

ATHENS — It’s really a simple case of supply and demand.

At defensive end, the numbers have been thin for Georgia to say the least. By the end of spring practice, only two healthy players remained — Kiante Tripp, who was just a few months removed from playing on the offensive line, and Justin Houston, who will serve a two-game suspension to begin the 2009 season.

At linebacker, however, there is a wealth of riches, and playing time has become increasingly difficult to find. With so many teams adopting some form of the spread offense around college football, the nickel defense has become a standard alignment for defensive coaches. With the extra defensive back on the field, the strongside linebacker is reduced to bench duty, and in Georgia’s case, a normally productive player is rendered useless.

The solution was simple: cross training.

“The more that people spread, the less that you’re going to play the Sam linebacker, and we’ve got to get those Sam linebackers working,” head coach Mark Richt said.

As spring practice drew to a close, linebackers Darryl Gamble and Marcus Washington began working as stand-up rushers on the defensive line. In part, it was necessity. Someone had to play defensive end, after all, and the Bulldogs were out of warm bodies. But the results were impressive, and the experiment soon became more than a simple patchwork solution to a temporary problem. It became an opportunity.

Two years ago, senior linebacker Brandon Miller made a similar transition with impressive results. The move was so successful, in fact, that Richt lamented the long delay in Miller’s career before the transition was made. Richt didn’t want to make the same mistake twice.

“We’re basically making that our normal mode of operation now,” Richt said. “If you’re a Sam linebacker and it’s nickel time, you’re going to learn how to rush the passer.”

Any help from the linebackers would be a boost for the beleaguered Georgia pass rush.

Last season, the Bulldogs finished 10th in the SEC with just 23 sacks — six of which came in their bowl game — a steep decline from 2007 when the team led the conference.

Injuries played a big role in those problems, with all but three defensive ends missing action last year. But regardless of the reasons, the fact remained that the group simply wasn’t productive enough.

Defensive end Rod Battle hopes those results will be different this season, but he understands that his unit has plenty to prove. Jeremy Longo and Neland Ball have been slow to recover from offseason injuries, Tripp is still adjusting to his new position, and freshman Montez Robinson is getting his first taste of action at the college level.

None of the defensive ends want to lose playing time to linebackers, Battle said, but until they can prove they’re ready to handle the job on their own, the position changes make sense.

“If you don’t like it, you’ve got to do something about it,” Battle said. “It adds more competitiveness to the team, because that stretches out the playing time a little bit more.”

Meanwhile, Washington’s return from a shoulder injury that cost him the 2008 season gives Georgia six experienced linebackers all battling for playing time. It’s a glut of talent considering the Bulldogs will only have two on the field at any given time against most teams.

With that in mind, Gamble, Washington and senior Darius Dewberry have all embraced the chance to play out of position just for a shot at playing time.

“The more versatile you are, the more likely it is you’ll get on the field, more likely you’ll contribute to the team,” Washington said. “I think it will help out as far as me getting reps and making plays for the team because you have to have a significant pass rush to be successful on defense.”

The changes come late in the careers for Washington and Dewberry, but there’s a benefit to that, too, Dewberry said.

“I think it definitely will look good to the people at the next level,” Dewberry said. “If you’re going somewhere that runs like a 3-4, playing linebacker or D-end is like the same thing. It’s just good to know both, and it looks good to be able to say that you’ve played both.”

It’s a convenient resolution for all parties concerned. In the end, however, Georgia’s coaching staff hopes that answers to the team’s pass-rush problems are found among the defensive ends, and using Gamble, Dewberry and Washington as stand-up rushers will be an effective but temporary solution.

In the meantime, however, the new wrinkle to the defensive philosophy is evidence that Richt and his staff are willing to make adjustments based on last season’s shortcomings and more importantly, Washington said, that the coaches have faith in the players to get the job done.

“I think if you’re put in a situation like that, it means the coaches have a lot of confidence in you,” Washington said. “It means you can not only learn the position but be productive at the position, so I see it as a good thing.”