A lot of unanswered questions exist on Georgia’s defensive line.
How many players will fill the rotation? Which three players will start and play the most? How will a group made up mostly of freshmen and sophomores stand up to the rigors of the SEC?
The Bulldogs also have a depth issue with only nine scholarship defensive linemen.
On top of all of this, Georgia will be without sophomore Jonathan Ledbetter for at least the first two games of the season due to a DUI arrest. Julian Rochester has a good chance to play against North Carolina, although his status remains unknown since his case for possession of a weapon in a school zone (BB gun) and criminal damage to property is still pending.
The Bulldogs will rely on a ton of youth as junior John Atkins and a slew of sophomores make up the veteran presence on this year’s defensive front.
Even so, defensive coordinator Mel Tucker is remaining optimistic based on the talent he has seen on the practice field.
“We’re going to assign roles to as many people as we can,” Tucker said. “The more guys that have roles, I think the better that we’re going to be. And so we’re looking for guys that can play for us, that can play winning football for us, and we look to have a strong rotation up front.”
Defensive lineman Michael Barnett has been forced to step into a leadership position only in his sophomore season. In a rotational role a year ago, Barnett recorded five tackles in seven games played.
Expected to take on more responsibility, Barnett said he has tried to mentor the freshmen as much as he can.
“We treat everybody the same,” Barnett said. “Everybody’s going to have to play. I think they’re all doing pretty good in playing together. We’re all learning the playbook and doing good as a whole.”
Fellow sophomore DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle is in the same boat as Barnett.
Hawkins-Muckle got rotation time a year ago and recorded three tackles in 10 games. He understands that the new group of freshmen — Rochester, Michail Carter, Tyler Clark and David Marshall — will need to contribute early since the numbers at the position aren’t as strong as head coach Kirby Smart would prefer.
Hawkins-Muckle believes the freshmen are talented enough to step in and perform but that there’s still a lot to learn before the season kicks off.
“A lot of it is they’re uptight right now,” Hawkins-Muckle said. “They’re trying to figure out everything that’s going on. But they’re getting the hang of it and they’re starting to pull through like we expect them to.”
Last year’s group began as a heavy rotation but ultimately featured Sterling Bailey, James DeLoach, Chris Mayes and Josh Dawson, a solid group that worked well together and helped free up the inside and outside linebackers to make tackles.
Outside of sophomore Trent Thompson, a true determination of who starts and how much they play has yet to be set. Rochester figures to play a lot and Ledbetter could compete for a starting spot once he’s eligible for game action again.
Atkins, Hawkins-Muckle and Barnett are competing for playing time, with Justin Young an intriguing name to watch. And then Smart has publicly commended Carter, Clark and Marshall numerous times throughout the preseason for the effort they’ve given in practice.
“We have a good mixture of size and athleticism,” Tucker said. “I think we have stoutness up front. We have pass rush ability on the edges. I think we have some young guys that are going to be able to contribute for us. We’re going to have to see how they go.”