ATHENS – Georgia defensive line coach Rodney Garner is not one to toss a lot of bouquets, especially in the middle of the summer with actual games still three months from being played. But he can’t suppress his excitement (a relative term here) when it comes to the group set to hold the line for the Bulldogs this fall.
Noseguards Kwame Geathers and John Jenkins, defensive ends Abry Jones and Garrison Smith and backups Sterling Bailey, Ray Drew, Mike Thornton and Cornelius Washington, provide Georgia with the three most important needs of an exceptional D-line — size, athleticism and depth. They also bring some intangibles to the equation, according to Garner.
“I’m proud of these guys. I really am,” Garner said this past week. “I’m proud of the type of young men that the are. I’m proud of the things they bring to the table, not just from an athleticism standpoint, but for overall work ethic, for leadership qualities, everything. I’ll be honest with you, I’m really honored just to have the opportunity to coach them, just looking at how they’ve matured over the years.”
Garner has coached some great defensive lines in his 15 seasons with the Bulldogs. He stops short of labeling the 2012 group as the best he’s had — for him, the 2000 D-line is a slam dunk in that regard. But he said this year’s line does remind him a little of that unit, which included Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, Charles Grant and Josh Mallard, with Johnathan Sullivan as the primary backup.
Seymour (6th) and Stroud (13th), Grant (25th) and Sullivan (6th) all became NFL first-round draft picks, while Mallard and backup Demetric Evans also played in the NFL.
“Four first-round picks on the same D-line; that’s a pretty good deal,” Garner said. “And Tyrone Robertson was supposed to be on that team, too, but he got in some academic trouble and had to go to Hines (Community College). Jonathan Sullivan was the No. 1 backup as a true freshman and he blacked up Richard and Marcus pretty good [in practice].”
Garner wasn’t sure if the 2012 unit is destined for the level of NFL success the 2000 line did, but he likes what he sees in these individuals. His observations:
On Jones, the senior defensive end . . .
“I look at Abry, who I think is a heck of a player who doesn’t get nearly the recognition I think he deserves. I mean, this kid comes to play every day, he plays with energy, he plays with passion. And he’s been a very productive player for us. He made some really good plays last year and did some nice things. I just like his leadership; I like everything he stands for. I’m just looking forward to him having a real good year.”
On Jenkins and Geathers at noseguard and tackle, each of them a 350-pounder . . .
“The two big boys. They’re big men who are very athletic. It’s very rare that you can find guys who are that big who can move the way they move. God was good to them when they got in the line for talent.”
On Smith, the junior defensive end from Atlanta, and Thornton, of Stone Mountain . . .
“I think Garrison might have had the best spring of any of them. He’s coming on like gangbusters. I think he has a chance to really put his mark on that position. And I thought Mike had a good spring, too. He really did. Mike can play.”
On Washington, Drew and Bailey, each making the conversion from outside linebacker to end, or 5-technique tackle:
“Cornelius is adjusting to playing inside, which is different for him. But he’s bought into it and he’s adjusting to it and I think he’ll continue to improve and eventually be a different type of change-up guy in there. . . .
“I think Ray Drew’s going to be really good. Have you looked at how big he is? He’s 280 pounds. [Moving to defensive tackle] was not a negative thing at all; I hope people understand that. He saw it himself. It is what it is. Ray could’ve sat around and starved himself, but it wasn’t going to happen. He’s going to be a 300-pounder; that’s what God intended him to be. Ain’t nothing he can do about it. Next year he’ll probably play at about 290 and the next year he’ll probably be 300. That’s what his body is built for. Him moving in there is not a negative. In a 3-4, that’s just where he needs to be. In a 4-3, he could be a defensive end. He’s a good 5-technique tackle. He’s a great athlete. He’s going to be fine. . . .
“Same thing with Sterling Bailey. That’s what people have to understand. Those are guys who are very athletic at those positions. Sterling’s like 285. Of course he’s coming off that [foot surgery], but he’s a great athlete, too.”
Garner stops short of predicting greatness for this group. But he’s certainly excited about the possibilities.
“They’re a great group of young men,” he said. “I’m eager to see what they can do.”
Chip Towers, The UGA Blog