Georgia’s Azeez Ojulari back at scene of breakout game

The bad news for Georgia’s defense is a lot of key contributors are going to be missing from the lineup. That may be good news for the future.

It was this time last year when Azeez Ojulari suddenly found himself thrust into the Bulldogs’ plan for their Sugar Bowl matchup against Texas. At that point, most people didn’t know how to pronounce his name or spell it. Twelve months later, he’s leads the team in sacks (4.5) and has established himself as a leader in the outside linebacker meeting room.

Last year's Sugar Bowl, he said, gave him a boost in that direction.

“It was a great opportunity for me, a great push for me, a great experience, for sure,” said Ojulari, who was co-winner of the Bulldogs’ postseason award for most-improved defender. “I brought that momentum with me into this season. Having that game-time experience was really good, and some young guys are going to get that this season. It’s really a blessing.”

Heading into Wednesday’s game against No. 7-ranked Baylor, Ojulari leads the outside linebackers with 31 tackles and the team with 36 quarterback pressures. Heading into last year’s Sugar Bowl, Ojulari had appeared in only three games in mop-up duty and recorded just two tackles.

Ojulari said he learned around “the second or third bowl practice” that starter D’Andre Walker was not going to play in New Orleans and that he would be expected to contribute. Little did he know, however, that he’d be on the field for the majority of snaps.

He finished with two tackles and a quarterback pressure. What he remembers most, though, is not wrapping up Texas quarterback Sam Ehlinger for what should have been his first career sack.

“Yeah, I left some money out there,” Ojulari said with a laugh Monday. “I left something on the table with that missed sack, so I’ve got to come back and get that this year.”

Defensive coordinator Dan Lanning gets credit for recognizing Ojulari’s readiness to play a year ago. Lanning is also the position coach for Georgia’s outside linebackers. Robert Beal and Brenton Cox both entered the game with much more game experience.

“His coming out game last year was this game,” Lanning said. “He has just continued to work and push himself throughout this year to get better and help us. … He's the kind of guy that does it by showing you, not by what he says.”

The Bulldogs are hoping to make many more such discoveries this year. Georgia will be missing at least six players from its defensive two-deep, including starters Tyler Clark (tackle), Walter Grant (linebacker) and J.R. Reed (safety).

Senior Julian Rochester, who has missed all but three games this season while recovering from off-season knee surgery, likely will fill in for Clark at defensive end. Who might get the snaps at Grant’s and Reed’s positions is still being decided in practice. The Bulldogs have a host of outside linebackers who can play. Freshman Lewis Cine, sophomore Christopher Smith and sophomore Otis Reese are working at Reed’s safety spot.

Ojulari insists there won’t be much drop-off.

“Everyone needs to know that we’re still the same defense, the defense that got us here this season, that has been making plays all season,” Ojulari said. “We’re going to let everybody know that and showcase down here that we’re still that good defense.”