Georgia’s Jalen Carter hoping to save his best for last

Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter speaks during a media day ahead of the national championship game between Georgia and TCU, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Credit: Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com

Georgia defensive lineman Jalen Carter speaks during a media day ahead of the national championship game between Georgia and TCU, Saturday, Jan. 7, 2023, in Los Angeles. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)

LOS ANGELES – Jalen Carter admitted to being a little awestruck Saturday. Not necessarily about the big game that he and the No. 1 Georgia Bulldogs are getting ready to play in. Just being in California was blowing his mind a little bit.

“First time ever,” said Carter, an All-American defensive lineman from Florida. “Seeing the palm trees and the hills and mountains with snow on them, that’s my first time seeing snow like that. It’s the farthest I’ve been from home.”

Don’t mistake Carter’s wide-eyed gaze at the picturesque landscape as distraction. He’s fully focused on the task at hand in the College Football Playoff Championship game Monday, which is to slow No. 3 TCU’s prolific offense. That didn’t go so well the last time Georgia played, when the Bulldogs gave up 467 yards and 41 points to No. 4 Ohio State in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl and left Mercedes-Benz Stadium on Dec. 31 with a victory by the skin of their teeth.

Carter himself didn’t have the greatest of games. He finished with one tackle and one pass breakup. He spent most of the night chasing quarterback C.J. Stroud and not catching him.

Finally, the Bulldogs got it done when they had to. They limited the Buckeyes to three fourth-quarter points for the comeback victory in their national semifinal.

“I’d say the defense started out a little rough,” Carter said during Georgia’s media day at the Los Angeles Convention Center on Saturday morning. “They hit us with some explosive plays coming out. We just had to get everything together and get back connected and do what we worked on. Connection, resiliency, toughness, you know, our traits.”

Carter and the Bulldogs will have to play even better to slow quarterback Max Duggan and Horned Frogs. It’s not that they’re better than Ohio State, it’s just that they’re different.

Duggan can sling the pigskin with the best of them, but his ability to tuck and run is unmatched by most in football. The Heisman Trophy runner-up is similar to Heisman winner Caleb Williams of nearby USC in that regard.

“They’re both very good QBs,” said Carter, who has three sacks and 25 pressures in limited play this season. “I think we’ve just got to keep them in the pocket, we’ve got to close the gaps. We can’t leave any open holes where he can run because he likes to run.”

Stroud likes to run as well, but he moves primarily to throw. Duggan runs to make plays with his legs. He has eight TDs and 461 yards on the ground.

Carter found himself very close to bringing down Stroud a couple of times. He could never get hold of him, completely whiffing once in a clean one-on-one opportunity.

That was the problem. Carter often got through the line only to be unable to catch the quarterback. He admitted to being out of breath often in the game.

“Personally, yeah, I was a little winded,” he said. “I did practice on that this week and coming into this game. I’d say it’s going to be better this game.”

The good news for the Bulldogs is that Carter doesn’t have to go it alone. In fact, Georgia was having to go without him for nearly six full games because of ankle and knee injuries. Carter played 32 snaps in the opener against Oregon, twisting his ankle on the first play from scrimmage. When he returned four weeks later, he suffered an MCL sprain in his left knee early in the second quarter.

After playing third downs only against Florida in Game 8, Carter slowly played more and more until he reached full speed against LSU in the SEC Championship game Dec. 3. He played a season-high 52 snaps against the Buckeyes, most for the season.

How much better conditioned Carter could be nine days later is unknown. It’s likely that Georgia will play him less, if only slightly.

One benefit from Carter being sidelined so much this season was the development of Zion Logue, Warren Brinson and Nazir Stackhouse. They’ve all improved considerably.

“It gave those guys a good opportunity to step up and help out Naz,” defensive line coach Tray Scott said. “They didn’t blink an eye. They jumped right in there and took advantage of the opportunity.”

Georgia’s D-line play this season has been amazing considering the losses from last season’s national championship team. Starters Travon Walker, Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt were first-round NFL draft picks.

Scott said he’d be lying if he said he wasn’t at all surprised at the job their replacements would do.

“You always have an idea, potentially, but you don’t ever know; that’s the easiest way to answer that,” Scott said. “Potentially, we felt like we had the right pieces if it all comes together the right way. But you never truly know until it’s actually happening. But I knew there was definitely enough talent in the (group).”

That started with Carter, who also played a major role during the run to the 2021 title. Of course, who knew he’d spend half of this season hurt?

Carter is well now. And even though he didn’t put up good numbers against the Buckeyes, his presence alone makes a difference. Pro Football Focus graded him at 73.4, which was third-highest among Georgia defenders.

Accordingly, Carter always going to be the primary focus of every offensive line he faces, and that will be the case again in Monday’s game. He knows it, and he’s going to be ready for it.

That’s why the most he’s going to see of Los Angeles and Southern California this week is going to be on the 15-mile bus rides between the team’s downtown hotel southwest down to SoFi Stadium, where the Bulldogs are practicing Saturday and Sunday.

“I know there’s a lot of difference places you can see in the world with different sceneries and all that, but I’m not worried about that right now,” said Carter, who is expected to be a top-5 pick in April’s NFL draft. “I know we’re here to play football, and that’s what I’m sticking on.”

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