Young D-linemen doing great, but Bulldogs to lean on experience

Georgia defensive lineman Tyler Clark (52) sacks  LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow.

Credit: Bob Andres

Credit: Bob Andres

Georgia defensive lineman Tyler Clark (52) sacks LSU Tigers quarterback Joe Burrow.

Georgia might not place a defensive lineman on any All-American teams, and maybe not even All-SEC. But Kirby Smart doesn’t believe that means Georgia can’t be dominant up front this season.

What the Bulldogs lack in star power, Smart thinks they’ll make up for in depth and experience. To start with, there are a lot of them. Georgia has scholarships committed to 14 defensive linemen for this season, including five that went to 2019 signees.

But it’s the lettermen that the Bulldogs are counting on to get the hard work done this season, particularly in the early going. And Georgia will need to get going early with its opener this year happening to be on the road against a conference opponent in Vanderbilt (Aug. 31, 7:30 p.m., SEC Network).

There are plenty to choose from. Georgia’s defensive line features six seniors, one of whom has already graduated in nose guard Michael Barnett. At this point, the late-blooming Barnett would have to be considered as one of the Bulldogs’ top four linemen on the defensive front. Along with Tyler Clark, Julian Rochester and David Marshall, those players have played in 148 games for Georgia. That’s an average of 12.3 contests per season.

Suffice it to say, none of those guys will playing wide-eyed under the lights at Vanderbilt’s Dudley Stadium.

“There’s not one dominant player on that defensive front,” Smart said after the Bulldogs’ scrimmage Saturday. “There’s a lot of good, solid players. A lot of experience.”

That’s not to say there isn’t some quality therein. Most players in the group were highly recruited when they came to Georgia. Most of them were 4-star prospects coming out of high school, with Julian Rochester garnering a 5-star grade from one outlet. But only Jordan Davis has earned any postseason accolades. He was named freshman All-American and All-SEC after a torrid second half last season.

Clark would have to be considered the most likely player to come through for the Bulldogs. The 6-foot-4, 300-pound senior from Americus has done it before on a big stage. He’ll forever be remembered for his tackle for loss in a late-game, goal-line situation against Oklahoma in the Rose Bowl at the end of the 2017 season. He also had a quarterback hurry and tackle for loss against Notre Dame that season.

Clark’s production actually went down as a junior last season, with fewer tackles, negative-yardage plays and starts. But Clark reportedly has had the best preseason camp of his career and appears poised for a productive season.

“Tyler’s just a vet,” junior offensive tackle Andrew Thomas said. “He understands what’s going on. He’s quick off the ball, and strong, too.”

Defensive line was an obvious priority for the coaching staff after last season. The Bulldogs brought in a junior college transfer along with four freshman. But the biggest fuss surrounded 5-star signee Travon Walker of Thomaston.

The 6-foot-5, 290-pound Walker hasn’t disappointed. Asked if anybody on the defensive line had stood out to him during camp, starting right tackle Isaiah Wilson didn’t hesitate to invoke Walker’s name.

“Trayvon Walker,” Wilson said, grinning as he drew out the syllables. “He’s a very athletic and rangy guy. Super athletic.”

Smart and defensive coordinator Dan Lanning have spoken highly of Walker as well. In fact, all of the new additions have flashed at times during preseason practice.

It’s the consistency factor that has the coaching staff concerned heading into Game 1.

“They’re not where the older guys are yet; you can’t be,” Smart said. “A guy just gets here and you’re looking at a guy that’s been playing for four years, that’s unrealistic to think some of those guys are going to be where the older players are. You just can’t physically jump into that mode yet.”

That said, Smart, too, likes what he’s seen so far from Walker.

“Travon is the one that has a chance to help us the most this year because he’s not really an interior defensive lineman,” Smart said. “He is more athletic, plays on the edge, can do some more stuff in sub situations where the other guys are a little more run-oriented."

The bottom line is the Bulldogs hope to overwhelm opponents with their numbers. Lanning promises to play a lot of players at each position, including the three and four linemen who will man the front. The plan is to utilize each one’s unique skill set to down-and-distance and win matchups.

Most of the time, that’s going to come down to players who understand exactly what their roles are going to be.

"There’s a lot of guys rolling (in and out),” Smart said. “It just seems like we’ve got guys that have played a lot of football out there.”

For now at least, that trumps young talent.

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