Interior defensive play tops list of Georgia’s early concerns

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Credit: Tony Walsh/UGAAA

Linebackers must ‘step up and play better,’ coach Kirby Smart says

ATHENS — There is no reason to panic this early in preseason camp, but coach Kirby Smart’s comments about inside linebacker play after Georgia’s first scrimmage Saturday validate the concerns the Bulldogs have about the middle of their defense this season.

UGA has recruited impressively at that all-important position the past several years. But with Nakobe Dean, Quay Walker and Channing Tindall all getting drafted off last season’s squad, the Bulldogs are looking to replace 151 games of experience and 415 career tackles this season.

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Stepping into those roles are little-used juniors Trezmen Marshall and Rian Davis and second-year players Jamon Dumas-Johnson, Smael Mondon and Xavian Sorey.

Their inexperience showed in the first preseason scrimmage at Sanford Stadium. Facing a veteran-laden Georgia offense led by sixth-year senior quarterback Stetson Bennett, they allowed several big plays. An 80-yard touchdown run by senior running back Kenny McIntosh was among them.

“That group has got to step up and play better,” Smart said. “And the defensive line has got to help them play better by keeping the blockers off of them.”

Having to rebuild the defensive line doesn’t help the situation. Technically, Georgia is replacing its entire starting group, with Jordan Davis, Travon Walker and Devonte Wyatt all getting NFL first-round calls.

Their losses are somewhat alleviated by the return of Jalen Carter, arguably the most talented of the entire group last season. But it was Davis, specifically, and Wyatt, secondarily, who commanded interior double teams and thereby kept opposing blockers from reaching the second level of the Georgia defense.

The Bulldogs are looking to juniors Zion Logue and Warren Brinson and redshirt freshman Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins to fill those roles this season. The versatile Carter and senior Tramel Walthour will get some inside looks as well.

Georgia signed four defensive linemen in the class of 2022, at least three of whom project as interior players. But contributions from freshmen in such roles are rare, to say the least.

“The young guys are coming on in flashes and showing some plays. But they don’t have the physical or mental toughness to sustain it, like do it over and over,” Smart said of the defensive line. “(Defensive line coach) Tray (Scott) is trying to get enough consistency out of that room that we can play those guys. We’re not where we need to be there, that’s for sure.”

Nobody is questioning the talent of Georgia’s linebacker corps. It has has proved to be one of the best position groups in the country year in and year out under the direction of seventh-year coach Glenn Schumann. But preparing this particular ensemble for the 2022 season promises to be one of Schumann’s greatest challenges to date.

Davis and Marshall are the heirs apparent at inside linebacker, but they have only 14 career tackles between them. Injuries in addition to a crowded depth chart have kept them out of the rotation.

Georgia believes it has some stars-in-the-making in Dumas-Johnson, Mondon and Sorey. Each arrived at UGA with impressive recruiting credentials. Dumas-Johnson, in particular, has shown a penchant for making impactful plays as a backup.

But it’s in the area of offensive recognition and on-the-fly defensive adjustment where they have to make up ground. The Bulldogs also signed three inside linebackers in the last class, including four-star freshman Jalon Walker of Salisbury, N.C. But major contributions from freshmen at the position also are uncommon.

“‘Pops’ (Dumas-Johnson) has probably been the most consistent guy in that group,” Smart said. “We’re looking for some mental and physical toughness out of that group. There (are) some talented young players. Sorey flashes, but he’s got to do it more consistently. He knows that. He has some ability to make some really big flash plays, but he’s got to do it more consistently within the defense. Smael has got to play better, too.”

The Bulldogs have 15 more practice opportunities and one scrimmage to get the linebackers up to speed. No. 3 Georgia opens the season against No. 11 Oregon in a Chick-fil-A Kickoff game Sept. 3 (3:30 p.m., ABC).

One of the Ducks’ primary strengths is said to be offensive-line play.