Georgia linebackers see South Carolina as ‘statement game’

Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon Jr. (2) attempts to tackle UT Martin quarterback Kinkead Dent (8) during the second half at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 2, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 48-7. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Credit: Jason.Getz@ajc.com

Georgia linebacker Smael Mondon Jr. (2) attempts to tackle UT Martin quarterback Kinkead Dent (8) during the second half at Sanford Stadium, Saturday, September 2, 2023, in Athens, Ga. Georgia won 48-7. (Jason Getz / Jason.Getz@ajc.com)

ATHENS — You can call them Sam and Will or Mike and Mac or Mac and Money. Whatever position names you apply, at Georgia they translate into Jamon Dumas-Johnson and Smael Mondon They’re finally back together where they belong – in the middle of the Bulldogs’ defense.

Dumas-Johnson has been able to man the middle linebacker position Georgia calls “Mike” as per usual this season. It has been his cohort, Mondon, who has struggled to get back to up speed for the season.

Mondon has been recovering from a foot injury that sidelined him for the second half of spring practice in April. After rehabbing all summer and missing nearly the entirety of preseason camp, Mondon was able to get on the field for six plays in the season opener.

Mondon upped that total to 23 snaps Saturday against Ball State. The hope now that the Bulldogs are opening the SEC slate his weekend is that Mondon will approach something close to the full speed as Georgia prepares to take on South Carolina.

“It felt great just to be out there,” Mondon said after recording a team-best four tackles against the Cardinals on Saturday. “After going through the rehab process and fighting to get back, it felt good just to be out there.”

Defensive back AJ Harris also had four stops in the 48-3 victory Saturday. Dumas-Johnson recorded only one.

But Mondon and Dumas-Johnson say they have formed a bond manning the middle in so many games last season. They were side-by-side for 13 last season as the Bulldogs went 15-0 on the way to capturing a second consecutive national championship. But thanks to the physical nature of their positions, it has become increasingly difficult for the two of them to remain on the field together.

Dumas-Johnson started all 15 games last season but was slowed with injuries for the last third of last season. He has started both games this season but seems a step slow. He’s managed only three tackles so far and has not recorded a sack or a pressure.

Then, again, Georgia hasn’t dialed up much in the way of blitzes in the first two games. That certainly will change against South Carolina and quarterback Spencer Rattler. The Gamecocks have given up 10 sacks in the first two games, including nine in the season-opening loss to North Carolina in Charlotte.

Having started side-by-side for 13 games a year ago, Dumas-Johnson and Mondon are working hard to reestablish what they say is a special connection playing in the middle of Georgia’s defense.

“We know what one is comfortable with and what one is not comfortable with,” Dumas-Johnson said Monday. “I feel like the offseason, we worked on that. We made our weaknesses our strengths. We’re just ready to go out there and play at this point. We worked on things we had to get fixed up, and I think we’re ready to do that.”

Mondon proved to be one of the Bulldogs’ more dynamic defensive playmakers down the stretch last season. He logged his first career interception to go along with six tackles and three quarterback hurries against LSU in the SEC Championship game in December. Mondon added seven tackles, a tackle for loss and six QB pressures against Ohio State in the College Football Playoff semifinal.

He’s not back to being that player yet, but coach Kirby Smart believes Mondon will be eventually.

“He’s gone a long time without practicing,” said Smart, who coached inside linebackers while he was defensive coordinator at Alabama. “… He missed all of fall camp. I think he’s still kind of knocking the rust off a little bit. He flashes. He’s really smart, man, a really good leader. He and Pop together are comfortable.”

It’ll take a lot more than those two for Georgia’s inside linebackers to play at the level to which fans have become accustomed. Generally, the Bulldogs rotate four or five players regularly at the two inside positions. That became a bigger concern in the offseason when senior Trezmen Marshall decided to transfer to Alabama. Marshall led the Crimson Tide in tackles in their loss to Texas this past weekend and has 14 in two games.

Third-year sophomore Xavian Sorey had a strong spring practice and turned heads during preseason camp. However, he hasn’t flashed as much in the first two games. The Bulldogs also lost freshman Raylen Wilson to a preseason knee sprain and redshirt freshman E.J. Lightsey had to be held out late in camp due to shoulder and back pain.

Freshman C.J. Allen has filled in the gaps and impressed the coaching staff in the process. He has five tackles and a QB pressure in two games. Jalon Walker also has made a permanent move from outside to inside linebacker and has had some impressive moments.

Dumas-Johnson – known to coaches and teammate as “Pop” – remains the unquestioned leader and motivator of the bunch. He seemed to have an edged about him this week as the Bulldogs prepare for the SEC opener.

Asked about the Bulldogs’ lack of sacks so far – that have only one so far – he pointed out how quickly their opponents have been getting rid of the ball this season.

“When teams are doing quick-game, they’re doing quick-game for a reason,” Dumas-Johnson said. “They don’t believe they can drop back and hold the ball and scan the field. So, quick-game is the answer to that because they really can’t block us.”

They should be even tougher to block with Mondon rejoining Dumas-Johnson in the middle this week. That they’re able to come together in time for the SEC opener versus South Carolina is key.

“When you’re playing an SEC opponent, it’s just different,” Dumas-Johnson said. “Especially the first one, it’s a statement game.”