ATHENS – One of the most welcome sights at Georgia’s practice Tuesday was a guy in a green jersey running by himself in one end zone at the far end of the field.
Starting inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, out since the first quarter of the first game of the year, was in full pads and running — quite swiftly and fluidly, in fact — through a series of speed and agility drills under the watchful eye of sports medicine director Ron Courson. Earlier in the day, head coach Mark Richt had made a rather bold pronouncement on what until then had been merely a wishful goal.
“Ogletree is looking really good,” Richt said during his weekly press conference on Tuesday. “We don’t think there is any question at all that he’ll be ready for the Florida game.”
“Tree,” as he has come to be called by coaches and teammates, was the talk of preseason camp because of the athleticism he brought to the “Mo” linebacker position from strong safety, where he started as a freshman the previous season. But Ogletree broke a bone in his foot early against Boise State. Not coincidentally, the Broncos were able to exploit Georgia’s defense late in the second quarter and early in the third quarter in that 35-21 loss.
The trouble regarding Ogletree’s return is the Bulldogs’ defense has developed quite nicely in his absence. Even after losing fellow starting inside linebacker Christian Robinson to an ankle injury in Game Two, Georgia’s linebacker corps has been a strength on a unit that is ranked sixth nationally and third in the defensive-minded SEC heading into Saturday’s game at Vanderbilt (7:08 p.m. Fox Sports South).
Robinson has been back for the last two games but has not returned to the starting lineup. “Backups” Michael Gilliard and Amarlo Herrera, who were working with the first-string defense again on Tuesday, have simply played to well in their absence to unseat.
Gilliard, who has started at “Mike” linebacker the last four games, was named SEC defensive player of the week after a 12-tackle effort against Tennessee that included a game-clinching sack. It was the fourth consecutive game he led the Bulldogs in stops and he now leads the Bulldogs with 40.
“I just feel like it’s my time to step up,” said Gilliard, a 6-foot-2, 220-pound junior from Valdosta. “I just go out there week in and week out, learn the playbook, learn our opponent and try to make plays and help my team win.”
Herrera, a 6-2, 231-pound freshman from College Park, has started the last four games at “Mo” linebacker and is tied for fourth on the team with 24 tackles.
Gilliard was asked what should happen upon Ogletree’s return. “Only time will tell,” he said. “I’m just going to keep doing what I’ve been doing. It’s up to the coaches.”
Ultimately it will be up to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who is thrilled to have the dilemma.
“There’s 11 spots out there,” said Grantham, in his second season with Georgia since being hired away from the Dallas Cowboys. “Each Monday we’ll know who’s available. Based on who’s available we’ll figure out where we need to play guys by combination to give us the best chance to win.”
Gilliard, Grantham admitted, may be hard to move. Plus, he doesn’t know yet what he has in Ogletree.
“The plan is to get him out there next week and work a little bit and I’ll have a better idea then,” he said. “But I haven’t seen him do anything yet. I’ve been around him in meetings and on the field this week. That’s all I have. But the reports have been good.”