Nazir Stackhouse: It’s ‘contract season’ for Georgia’s defensive linemen

ATHENS — Nobody respects Jalen Carter’s football skills more than Nazir Stackhouse. A defensive lineman himself, Stackhouse sat behind Carter on the depth chart for two seasons and then played alongside him this past season. He also happened to room with Carter the past two seasons.

So, few individuals are more familiar with Carter than Stackhouse. But Stackhouse also believes a few too many people might be writing off the Bulldogs’ defensive front this season because of Carter’s absence.

“We’ve all waited for this opportunity,” said Stackhouse, a rising senior from Stone Mountain. “It’s close to contract season. That’s what we call it – “contract season” – because, basically, we’re already eligible for the next draft and the next combine and stuff like that. You know, we’re maximizing our value.”

Actually, “waiting for this opportunity” is a bit misleading coming from Stackhouse. While it went somewhat under the radar last season, the 6-foot-3, 320-pound Stackhouse actually started all 15 games for the Bulldogs. In Georgia’s base defense, Stackhouse was the man lined up over the opposing center in what used to be known as the nose guard position.

Typically, Stackhouse would come out on second or third down, or whenever the offense was in an obvious passing situation. But when it came to first-and-10, stop-the-run-first situations, No. 78 usually could be found in the middle of Georgia’s defensive front.

The fact that he managed to do that in 15 of 15 games is a point of pride for this Columbia High graduate.

“I’m very proud of that, you know, just being able to hold it down,” said Stackhouse, who had zero starts entering last season. “But learning from guys like Travon Walker, Devonte Wyatt, Jordan Davis, I knew deep down inside if I could gain information and strategies from these guys, I could definitely use it when it’s my time. And (defensive line coach Tray Scott), he didn’t sugarcoat anything. Last fall, he said, ‘Look Naz, you’re starting in the Oregon game.’ I just kept it within myself and said to myself, ‘Look, I can go farther from here.’ And it’s just been exciting to know that I started in every game after that.”

Stackhouse said the key for him – and really all of Georgia’s down linemen – is to build on what they’ve learned. He doesn’t claim that he or any of the Bulldogs’ other linemen have the same type of skill set as Carter, who could be a top-10 selection in next month’s NFL draft. But they all hope to emulate Carter’s versatility when it comes to being adept at defending against the run and the pass.

As it is, there is a lot of experience coming back on the defensive front for the Bulldogs. While they are losing Carter to the NFL and fellow junior Bill Norton to a transfer to Arizona, UGA actually lists three defensive linemen among their returning starters from the 2022 team. That includes defensive end Tramel Walthour (now a sixth-year senior), with 13 starts, and defensive tackle Zion Logue, with six starts. That does not include freshman All-American Mykel Williams, who started two games, played in all 15 and led the Bulldogs with 4.5 sacks.

Again, Stackhouse said it’s about the group broadening its collective skills from a versatility standpoint. Williams tended to be in games for pass rush. Stackhouse and Walthour were considered run-stuffers. Logue probably was the most multifaceted of the bunch.

All of them are looking to expand their skill sets.

“Some of us guys are, like, one-dimensional,” Stackhouse said. “So, Tray Scott is working hard with us to help us work both ways, you know, stopping the run and pass-rushing and just being destructive on the field. We all know Jalen Carter was really good at doing that and just being dependable. It’s more of a challenge than it is hard.”

Georgia certainly has plenty of options. Stackhouse is one of nine returning lettermen on the defensive line. They include young players who have seen the field a lot, such as sophomore Bear Alexander, and older players who are relatively inexperienced, such as Warren Brinson and Jonathan Jefferson. The Bulldogs also signed a couple of early enrollees in Jordan Hall and Jamaal Jarrett who aren’t likely to play a lot in their first season.

With Carter expected to become the latest first-round draft pick off of Georgia’s D-line – just one year after three others could make the same claim – all of Georgia’s down linemen feel like they have something to prove in 2023.

“I would say that our identity is still out there,” Stackhouse said. “We just need to keep the standard for the team. That’s the big challenge for us. … Look, we’re still the Georgia defense. We can still stop the run, and we can still affect a lot of teams defensively. So, I would say it’s a big challenge, but we’re building up to it as a defensive line and as a defense as a whole.”