Offensive reload, defensive rebuild for 2021 Georgia Bulldogs

Georgia outside linebacker Nolan Smith (4) and defensive end Travon Walker (44) are two big reasons the Bulldogs believe they can absorb personnel losses on the defensive side of the ball in 2021. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)
Georgia outside linebacker Nolan Smith (4) and defensive end Travon Walker (44) are two big reasons the Bulldogs believe they can absorb personnel losses on the defensive side of the ball in 2021. (Tony Walsh/UGA Sports)

Credit: UGA Sports

Credit: UGA Sports

ATHENS – There are shoes still to drop. In the age of the transfer portal, NCAA blanket waivers and underclassman draft declarations, more certainly will. But the shape that will be the Georgia Bulldogs’ football team in 2021 is gradually coming into form.

That was considerably enhanced with Thursday’s news that nose guard Jordan Davis is returning for his senior season. The Bulldogs certainly can find some use for a 6-foot-6, 330-pound, all-SEC defensive lineman.

That means Georgia – as of Jan. 7 at least -- will return nine starters on offense and six on defense from the 8-2 team that entered the postseason ranked No. 9 before defeating previously unbeaten Cincinnati (9-1) in the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl.

Looking forward, Georgia is eyeing an opposite situation of what it faced in the 2020 offseason. That is, a lot of talent back on the offense – notably at the quarterback position -- and more of a rebuild on defense. There also is a 100 percent talent return in the area of specialists.

But the Bulldogs have absorbed their resident postseason hits. They lost four underclassmen to the NFL in outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari, cornerbacks Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes and center Trey Hill. Georgia awaits word from running back Zamir White. Six other senior starters with a chance to return have chosen to move on.

Players return to campus Sunday for spring-semester classes (which begin Wednesday) and offseason training. How the Bulldogs are able to shore up those transition areas will be key to their fortunes.

They are:

CENTER

  • Out: Junior Trey Hill (NFL)
  • In: Freshman Sedrick Van Pran or sophomore Warren Ericson

The 6-4, 305-pound Ericson, who will be entering his fourth year with the Bulldogs, started the last two games. But the drop-off on interior run-blocking and pass-protection was evident in those games. Both Ericson and the redshirt freshman Clay Webb spent more time at guard before Hill was sidelined because of chronic knee issues following the Nov. 28 game at South Carolina. So considering Georgia is unsettled at those positions at well, having Van Pran come through here would be the ideal situation. He would appear to have the stuff to do that.

TAILBACK

  • Out: Nobody so far.
  • In: Junior James Cook or sophomore Kenny McIntosh or freshman Kendall Milton

The X-factor here is Zamir White. The sophomore hasn’t made an announcement regarding the NFL so far, but draft position notwithstanding, no one would be surprised to see a promising back coming off major surgeries on both knees deciding to get started at the next level as possible. His loss would put a priority on Georgia establishing a tough inside runner between now and next fall. Milton and Daijun Edwards both show great potential in that regard. Cook returning is big because of his versatility. And will be motivated to improve his draft position. McIntosh shares Cook’s dynamic traits, and the Bulldogs’ also signed Lovasea Carroll out of IMG Academy. Bottom line, UGA will remain RBU.

RIGHT GUARD

  • Out: Senior Ben Cleveland
  • In: Ericson or senior Justin Shaffer or others

With Cleveland opting out for the Peach Bowl, line coach Matt Luke saw fit to execute a complete reshuffle, which resulted in Shaffer coming over from left guard, Jamaree Salyer moving inside to left guard from left tackle and redshirt freshman Xavier Truss getting his first start at left tackle. That experiment did not go particularly well, though a salty Cincinnati defense had something to do with that. If Van Pran can stick at center, Ericson played better when at guard. But the Bulldogs have four freshman signees coming in – led by 5-star tackle prospect Amarius Mims – and 11 returning lettermen besides, so the options are limitless. However, making sure the final five is markedly better than the group with which Georgia ended 2020 is key for 2021.

DEFENSIVE END

  • Out: Senior Malik Herring
  • In: Sophomore Travon Walker

The 6-3, 280-pound Herring has been a block of granite the past few seasons for the Bulldogs, coming through early on when heralded stars went down ahead of him and proving reliable against both the pass while logging 17 starts. Now holding a Senior Bowl invite, Herring flirted with the idea of returning. But now that he’s moving on, it’s Walker’s time to shine. The 6-5, 290-pound Walker hasn’t started, but has played in almost every game in his short career. And he’s always made an impact whenever he does. His 13 quarterback pressures this season were second only to Devonte Wyatt among the down linemen, and he missed the Peach Bowl because of COVID-19 protocols.

MIDDLE LINEBACKER

  • Out: Senior Monty Rice
  • In: Junior Quay Walker

One of the biggest benefits of Davis returning is his indirect effect on the play of Georgia’s inside linebackers. His motto is “two on me, linebacker’s free,” and that’s true. As it is, the Bulldogs have a star returning in rising junior Nakobe Dean. He is undergoing offseason labrum surgery and will miss spring practice, if there is one, but otherwise should be good to go by summer. But senior Monty Rice moving on from the spot beside Dean leaves a significant void at the position the Bulldogs call “Money.” Walker filled in for Rice whenever he was sidelined, which was more this past season than ever. Walker and Dean combined for 14 tackles (7 each) in the Peach Bowl and look like a formidable tandem and Walker finished with 43 overall. But the Bulldogs will be eager to see how well 5-star signee Smael (pronounced “smile”) Mondon makes the adjustment to college ball. Also, Georgia has the added option of rotating outside linebackers and safeties into both the Money and “Mac” positions. Don’t be surprised to see former 5-star outside linebackers Nolan Smith and M.J. Sherman get some looks inside the tackles.

JACK LINEBACKER

  • Out: Azeez Ojulari, Jermaine Johnson
  • In: Junior Adam Anderson

Many have asked for Georgia in recent years, “why doesn’t 19 play more.” Well, No. 19 is Adam Anderson, and he’s about to play more. The former 5-star prospect out of Rome just had the misfortune of playing behind Ojulari, who in addition to being an all-star player, also happened to be the most versatile of the Bulldogs’ star-studded outside linebacker corps. It used to be that Georgia played two outside linebackers all the time, such as it did with Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter on the edges in 2017. But with offenses increasingly playing versions of the up-tempo spread, the strongside linebacker rarely gets on the field anymore. Not having enough snaps to go around is why senior Jermaine Johnson chose to transfer to FSU. But coordinator Dan Lanning also likes to keep his edge-rushers fresh because it takes so much energy to play the position. So, expect lots of rotation as usual.

STAR

  • Out: Senior Mark Webb
  • In: Junior Latavious Brini

Brini, a 6-2, 210-pound junior, technically has been training at safety the past three years. But the Miami native moved to the star, or nickel position, in the Peach Bowl (while Stevenson moved over to corner) and performed extremely well. Brini was second on the team with five tackles against the Bearcats, including two for losses. He’ll continue to cross train between safety and nickel, but will give the Bulldogs versatility in the back third, along with returning safeties Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith. The player Georgia really needs to come through, though, is the 6-3, 211-pound Speed. To date, the former 4-star DB from Jacksonville has gotten most of his work on special teams. But with continued improvement, his combination of size and speed could help the Bulldogs both in pass defense and run support.

CORNERBACK

  • Out: Juniors Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes, senior D.J. Daniel
  • In: Sophomore Tyrique Stevenson and freshmen Jalen Kimber or Kelee Ringo

Secondary is the area of greatest concern for the Bulldogs and that was before they lost juniors Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes early to the NFL draft. But Georgia has recruited lights-out in the defensive backfield, and the expected departures of these two is part of the reason why. Ringo, a former 5-star prospect out of Tacoma, Wash., was expected to contribute this season before preseason surgery took him out of the equation. Former blue-chippers such has Jalen Kimber and those from this year’s group of touted signees will have to settle the playing time question in practice. But Stevenson made the switch from nickel to the right cornerback position in the bowl and ended up making one of the biggest plays of the game -- a fourth-quarter breakup of a critical third-down pass by Cincinnati in the waning minutes. So, Stevenson likely will lock down one of the two spots, but the competition will be intense and continuous.

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