ATHENS -- Amarlo Herrera doesn’t talk much. Ramik Wilson talks even less.
So when it was rough for Wilson, when he wasn’t playing and Herrera was, and when Wilson didn’t even know what his future was, the thing he didn’t do was whine about it to his fellow linebacker.
“Some things like that don’t get talked about,” Herrera said. “Because when we came in at the same time, he probably feels that, ooh, he’s supposed to be playing, why isn’t he playing? He just didn’t talk that much his first year at all.”
Wilson and Herrera came in to the Georgia football team together, and they’re leaving together. They’ve been Georgia’s starting inside linebackers the past two seasons, the team’s top two tacklers as juniors and seniors. Each has a shot at playing at the next level.
The journeys, however, have been starkly different.
Herrera was the anointed freshman, starting eight games his first year. He played in two SEC championship games. He is due to make his 42nd career start this Saturday against Georgia Tech.
Wilson, on the other hand, spent his freshman year sitting and watching. And his sophomore year. Oh, he got in on special teams and in blowouts and maybe some other times.
“When Jarvis would get tired, I would go in,” Wilson said, referring to two-time All-American Jarvis Jones.
Part of the problem was Wilson didn’t even have a set position. In practice, he would literally move from inside to outside linebacker and back again. It took until before last season, after Jones (an outside linebacker) and Alec Ogletree (an inside linebacker) turned pro, for coaches to decide that Wilson would be the inside linebacker.
And then, improbably, Wilson burst right past Herrera. It was the first-year starter, not the veteran, who led the SEC in tackles, had four sacks, and was a consensus first-team All-SEC pick.
Herrera actually was named by his own team as the defensive MVP last year, but he said Wilson’s accolades didn’t bother him.
“He had a better year than me,” Herrera said.
But under a new coaching staff, both Herrera and Wilson had to make adjustments, previous accomplishments notwithstanding.
Mike Ekeler, who joined the staff as inside linebackers coach, inherited two starters who he calls “awesome young men.” But there have also been rough moments since January, as the two got used to Ekeler’s coaching style, as well as the new demands of Ekeler and defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
“Any time you come into a new situation as a coach, you’ve gotta gain their trust. You’ve got to gain their respect. And it’s a process. It doesn’t just happen like that,” Ekeler said, snapping his fingers. “So we definitely had our growing pains, some come-to-Jesus moments. That’s something that has happened in the past in my career, and I’m sure it will in the future.”
For Herrera, that meant changing some of what Ekeler called his “practice habits,” without specifying those. At first Herrera was reluctant, but eventually he bought in. Ekeler calls him “one of my favorite guys I’ve coached.”
Wilson had to fight to reclaim his starting spot this preseason after missing 10 days with a concussion. It was a shock for a player coming off such a good year, but coaches believe he emerged better for it.
For Wilson, it was just another part of a long road to this point and a lesson for the two reserves behind him.
Tim Kimbrough and Reggie Carter are sophomores who have had to wait, just as Wilson did. They will be the favorites to start next season.
“It’s just hard work. Grind. I had to work hard and stay patient and make the most of my opportunity, and that’s what I did,” Wilson said. “Showing those young guys that no matter how you start off your career, not playing or playing, it’s a long four years and you’ve gotta make the best of your careers and each practice and each game.”