The Bulldogs return arguably one of the better defensive second lines in all of college football. Don’t get hung up on returning starters or projected starters. It doesn’t matter. Every one of these guys is going to play.
“Those are the two areas, outside linebacker and inside linebacker, that we probably didn’t feel like we had to have as much immediate help,” Georgia coach Kirby Smart said on signing day in February. “Those will be huge opportunities for kids in the next signing class that want to play outside linebacker and inside linebacker, because now we will have holes to fill.”
It would stand to reason that the Bulldogs will need to reload after this season. But they’re blissfully bloated at the moment.
Georgia has 12 players back to field the four linebacker positions, and only one of those — redshirt freshman Rian Davis — has no game experience. The rest of them were all expensively involved in the Bulldogs’ defensive plan last season.
Chief among those returnees is senior Monty Rice. Georgia actually wasn't certain last season's defensive captain was going to come back. Rice gave the NFL draft long and thoughtful consideration up to and after the Sugar Bowl. But a week after leading the Bulldogs to a 26-14 win over Baylor, Rice announced via Twitter that he was going to indeed have a senior season in Athens.
“Año quatro,” Rice said in a two-worded, sort-of Spanish-language tweet. Translated: “Year four.”
That decision provides Georgia with an important cog in the wheel that will be a highly touted defense in 2020. A major contributor throughout his career, Rice upped his game his junior season. In his own words, he became a bit of a film junkie and, along with senior safety J.R. Reed, developed a much better understanding of the Bulldogs’ defense.
That not only helped Rice make more plays — he led the Bulldogs with 89 tackles — but his teammates as well. His primary responsibility was making sure they were lined up correctly before the snap, and it’s one he handled extremely well.
“He’s a smart guy, really intelligent,” defensive coordinator Dan Lanning said. “And he’s a heavy hitter. When he puts his pads on, I think guys feel it.”
Rice’s knowledge made him a constant on the field last season. The rest of his linebacker mates — and the whole of the defense, really — rotated in and out according to down, distance and situation.
That’s why so many of the other Georgia’s linebacker returnees have game experience. The Bulldogs had 37 players play 100 snaps or more on defense last season, and much of that substitution occurred at linebacker. Georgia had run-stuffing specialists such as Quay Walker and Tae Crowder at the inside positions and Azeez Ojulari and Walter Grant outside. When it came to passing downs, Channing Tindall and Nakobe Dean often came in to either cover or blitz from the interior. Outside, Adam Anderson, Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson showed their worth getting after the quarterback.
One of the things that excites the Bulldogs about their only 2020 signee at the linebacker position is Mekhail “MJ” Sherman appears to have the tools to excel in pass rushing or coverage, as well as stopping the run. The 6-foot-2, 235-pound athlete was a 5-star prospect coming out of St. Johns College High in Baltimore and could play inside or outside linebacker at Georgia. He will enroll this summer.
Where everybody fits in will be the ultimate challenge for Lanning and his co-defensive coordinator and inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann. But no matter how the Bulldogs decide to mix and match, this will be touted as one of the best units in college football and could go down as one of the best in school history.
Monday: Special teams
Tuesday: Defensive line
Thursday: Defensive backs
Friday: Offensive line
Saturday: Tight ends
Monday: Wide receivers
Tuesday: Running backs