Throughout last season, Kirby Smart would closely observe each position group during practice. He would spend a significantly longer amount of time with the outside linebackers due to the position’s youth.
Smart would find an issue with the technique of Adam Anderson, Brenton Cox or another newcomer. Suddenly, position coach Dan Lanning would find himself with another source of assistance.
“If you want to set the edge, you have to be a big boy,” Smart yelled toward Cox in a practice prior to the season.
There will be many more rants of similar demeanor from Smart, and that’s a sure statement given the head coach’s fiery quality. A season later, however, there may be a sense of ease with Lanning’s group — not only because he was promoted to defensive coordinator after the departure of Mel Tucker. There’s a heap of young, yet experienced talent in Georgia’s group of pass rushers.
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Cox made a statement in third-down situations, Robert Beal emerged toward the middle of the season after taking a redshirt season in 2017 and Azeez Ojulari recovered from a torn ACL and flashed potential late in the season (especially in the Sugar Bowl loss, in which he was one-of-few bright spots for the Bulldogs).
So, when Lanning steps onto the field in a week to lead his youthful group, there may be a enhanced sense of excitement rather than worry. There’s depth, new talent and some returners that are more established than they were a season ago. Georgia’s outside linebackers could be a strength of its defense as it tries to make another run toward championship contention.
“We push each other to get better each week at practice,” said Adam Anderson, who saw increased playing time at the end of his freshman campaign. “That happens when you see someone getting better at the same position as you. It makes you want to develop yourself.”
Let’s analyze where the Bulldogs stand at outside linebacker.
Early enrollees: Nolan Smith (6-foot-3, 227 pounds), Rian Davis (6-foot-2, 145 pounds; recovering from torn ACL and likely won’t participate in spring) and Jermaine Johnson (6-foot-6, 250 pounds)
Note: Smith and Johnson are listed as weak-side defensive ends on 247Sports.com, but are expected to compete collegiately at OLB.
Key returners: Anderson (16 tackles, 0.5 sacks), Ojulari (four tackles in three appearances), Cox (20 tackles, one sack), Robert Beal (15 tackles, one sack) and Walter Grant (21 tackles)
Departures: D’Andre Walker (45 tackles, 7.5 sacks) and Keyon Richardson (4 tackles, 0.5 sacks)
The need: Smart can say it doesn’t matter as much as he wants, but Georgia needs a improvement in the sack statistic. The Bulldogs ranked 84th nationally with 24 sacks through 14 games. Clemson, the national leader in sacks, had 30 more. If Georgia is able to add to its aggressiveness with depth at the position, its ability and success at pressuring the quarterback could lead to an improved defense overall.
Newcomer to watch: On early signing day, this was the position that Georgia fans got excited about. Because the rankings are mind-boggling: Georgia signed the No. 1 overall outside linebacker prospect (Smith) and the No. 1 JUCO prospect at outside linebacker (Johnson). Smith is the one who carries the anticipation, but Johnson might be the one to watch. He participated in pre-bowl practices after making it to campus from Independence Community College. He already has a feel for the system, has a strong rapport with Lanning and gives Smart some excitement due to a needed combination of speed and size. As the Bulldogs start spring practice, Johnson may be the one who Smart speaks glowingly about (he doesn’t do that too often).
Impact of departures: Georgia didn’t lose many assets from the position as it did after the 2017 season, but its loss is significant. Walker was the force among the outside linebackers last season, and his absence was noticeable as the Bulldogs finished the season. He was out with a groin injury in the Sugar Bowl and was limited with the injury in games prior. Once more, it becomes harder to have defensive success if the quarterback has ample time to read the opponent. Walker minimized that with a ferocity and a personality of few words that translated into a on-field relentlessness. His 15 hurries will be tough to replace, but this rejuvenated group could be talented enough to do so.