Five of Georgia’s freshman defensive linemen received playing time during the 2015 season, which, on the surface, would appear unprecedented for the program. One of the reasons for doing this, former head coach Mark Richt said, was that it was better to get true freshmen playing experience, especially if he knew they would be needed the following year.
When it comes to Georgia’s defensive line, this couldn’t be more accurate. The Bulldogs relied on a fairly deep rotation, with seniors Sterling Bailey, Chris Mayes, James DeLoach and Josh Dawson all seeing playing time. With those players graduated, the Bulldogs are relying on a line with a lot of freshmen and sophomores.
Up front, it starts with rising sophomore Trenton Thompson, who earned his first career start against Alabama. Thompson dealt with injuries to both of his ankles, however, which slowed him down toward the end of the season. But the talent and potential is evident and showed why he entered Georgia as one of the top overall recruits in the nation.
Thompson will anchor the line and will receive veteran help from junior John Atkins — the player Thompson actually replaced in the starting lineup. Atkins, at least on the program’s official roster, is now listed as a nose tackle. If he’s actually moving to nose tackle, Atkins probably will be asked to add more weight because he’s listed at 6-foot-4 and 300 pounds. Mayes played the 2015 season at a listed weight of 323 pounds.
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Behind those two, a slew of young players will vie for rotational time.
Earning valuable experience in 2015 were Jonathan Ledbetter, Michael Barnett, DaQuan Hawkins and Chauncey Rivers — although Rivers is likely slated for a three-game suspension to start the 2016 season due to a second marijuana-related arrest that caused him to miss the TaxSlayer Bowl. Justin Young, the lone recruiting class of 2015 defensive lineman to redshirt, will have a chance to enter the mix, as well.
Georgia also will have freshman defensive tackle Julian Rochester available this spring as he enrolled early. Rochester, 6-5 and 327 pounds, has the build and the talent to possibly beat out some of the aforementioned names in Georgia’s rotation.
Given defensive line coach Tracy Rocker’s track record with developing his players, Georgia does appear to be in a good spot despite the losses it took to graduation.
“When it comes to Coach Rocker, you have to show you deserve early playing time,” Rochester said. “You have to be willing to put the work in to prove ourselves we deserve early playing time. He’s not going to just give it to us. Now we have to go out there and work.”
Spring practice will feature several defensive linemen competing with for those valued rotational spots. During the 2015 preseason, Rocker, in his lone appearance with the media, said he would prefer not to rely on such a heavy rotation but that he needed to.
That very well could be the case again in 2016 with all of the young and unproven talent on the roster. And Georgia is set to add even more defensive linemen this fall with Michail Carter, David Marshall, Tyler Clark joining the program when they enroll this summer. The numbers and quality of untapped talent are reasons why head coach Kirby Smart has expressed his optimism for the defensive line, even while noting its inexperience.
Rochester said the Bulldogs will likely build another rotation on the defensive line, but he’s confident the line will do when it’s all said and done.
“I feel like now we’ll just put together another rotation,” Rochester said. “David Marshall’s gonna come in and work. Tyler’s definitely gonna come in and work. And Michail will come in and work. I am going to come in and work. All of us together will have to find a brotherhood and build this thing together. It starts up front in the SEC. We have to dominate.”