Georgia’s defensive line enters spring a massive 14-players strong

This is the second installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia’s spring football practice, which begins March 17. Today: Defensive line | Yesterday: Special teamsTomorrow: Linebackers

DEFENSIVE LINE
Who's gone: DT Tyler Clark, NG Michael Barnett, DE David Marshall, DT Michail Carter, DE Justin Young
Who's back: DT Julian Rochester, DE Malik Herring, DE Travon Walker, DE Tramel Walthour, DT Devonte Wyatt, NG Jordan Davis, DL Bill Norton, DL Netori Johnson, DL Tymon Mitchell, DL Zion Logue
Who's new: Warren Brinson
Projected starters: Rochester, Davis, Herring

ATHENS — In college football, everybody tends to talk about returning starters and incoming freshmen in assessing the strength of a certain position or group. What's intriguing about Georgia's current situation on the defensive line, though, is the players who don't really fall into either of those categories heading into spring practice.

The Bulldogs feature a healthy group of returning lettermen up front — five in all, and that’s a big reason there’s optimism in 2020. But they also were able to redshirt five defensive linemen last season. That includes senior Julian Rochester, who technically could qualify as a returning starter.

Add to them to an impressive group of incoming recruits, and Georgia appears to have a nice blend of old and young at a stout position that goes 14-deep.

“They don’t grow on trees,” coach Kirby Smart said of defensive linemen. “You don’t go pick them and grab them like you do DBs or wide receivers. They’re hard to find.”

Finding some with SEC experience is even better, and that’s what makes Rochester’s return so important.

Heading into last season, the Bulldogs probably couldn’t have foreseen the 6-foot-5, 300-pound Rochester being back for 2020. A knee injury that required offseason surgery sidelined him last spring and put a question mark on his availability early in the season. But the thought was Georgia would be able work Rochester back into the rotation as the year progressed.

Rochester did eventually play, but not until the fifth game, against Tennessee. He also played in the Florida game, against LSU in the SEC Championship game and against Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. But that was it. Thanks to a still relatively new NCAA rule, players who participate in four or fewer games are eligible for a redshirt season. Georgia's coaches discussed the prospect with Rochester toward the end of the season, and he accepted it.

Credit: Curtis Compton

Credit: Curtis Compton

"I feel like it was the best decision to stay down," Rochester told reporters at the Sugar Bowl. "We went through the season seeing how we were feeling, but ultimately, the decision is I get to redshirt. I'm blessed to get the opportunity to come back to this prestigious program and get another shot next year."

Georgia’s blessed to have him back as well. Even after playing only sporadically last season, Rochester is the Bulldogs’ most experienced down lineman. He has played in 45 games, starting 19 of them, and enters his final season with 95 tackles, 5.5 sacks and eight tackles for loss. You can go ahead and pencil him in to start at tackle against Virginia in the season opener Sept. 7.

What makes Rochester’s return even more important is that the Bulldogs did lose some production up front. Tyler Clark started 45 games in his career, and he, Michael Barnett and David Marshall played in 145 over the past four seasons.

The good news is that Georgia has experience and talent besides. Senior defensive end Malik Herring, who started eight games last season, might have been the Bulldogs' best lineman the second half of the season. Rising senior Devonte Wyatt — who has still has to resolve a February misdemeanor arrest — had four tackles in the Sugar Bowl and at times seemed unblockable. Add in All-SEC candidates Jordan Davis and Travon Walker, and it's evident that there's proven talent in the fold.

There’s also some unproven talent. Freshmen Bill Norton, Tymon Mitchell and Zion Logue also were redshirted last season. And everybody is excited to get a look at 5-star signee Jalen Carter, who will arrive this summer. The 5-star prospect out of Apopka, Fla., highlights four defensive linemen in the 2020 signing class, including early enrollee Warren Brinson of the IMG Academy in Bradenton, Fla. Nazir Stackhouse and Cameron Kinnie also will join the team this summer.

Out of that huge group, the Bulldogs are bound to find a standout subset to bolster what’s expected to be one of the best defenses in the country again in 2020.

“Big, physical-presence guys,” Smart said of the newbies. “And we needed that. We’re losing some core guys, and those guys, to me, are as good of a group as you’ll find in the country.”

Defensive linemen may not grow on trees, but Georgia is growing a few in Athens.

THE SERIES

Monday: Special teams
Today: Defensive line
Wednesday: Linebackers
Thursday: Defensive backs
Friday: Offensive line
Saturday: Tight ends
Sunday: Quarterbacks
Monday: Wide receivers
Tuesday: Running backs