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Monday, February 16, 2009

A Position of Strength

I already mentioned in my last post that I had a story in Sunday's Telegraph talking about Georgia's depth at linebacker this year. The story dealt as much with linebackers coach John Jancek's desire to develop leaders as it did the on-field production, however, so I wanted to take some time to look at how the snaps might shake out at the position when fall camp finally breaks in August.

As you're no doubt aware, the linebackers were perhaps the most beat up of any group last season, with seven players missing games, including senior Dannell Ellerbe, who is the only member of the group who won't be back this year.

When spring camp opens next month, Jancek will finally have a full cast (or mostly full anyway) to work with, and the numbers add up to one of the deepest groups at any position for the Bulldogs.

"Everything's very positive," Jancek said. "(Akeem) Hebron will be back this spring, Charles White will be back this spring two guys that had significant injuries. (Darius) Dewberry will be back in June he's a little bit later because of the surgery that he had. But I'm encouraged by the competition that we're going to have, and I think it's going to be a great situation."

As I mentioned in my story in yesterday's paper, the encouraging signs at the position extend well beyond the depth chart, too. Sophomore Rennie Curran developed into one of the team's most vocal leaders in 2008, and he is dedicating this offseason to helping his teammates make the same transition. Both Curran and Jancek said their goals for the next few months were to turn the linebacking corps into the backbone of the defense, setting the tempo for everyone else and becoming leaders on the field.

"I feel like we learned a lot about ourselves and just the fact that we needed to have more discipline if we wanted to be the best to work hard, to always be the best in every drill --- and that's kind of what we've implemented from the very beginning," Curran said. "From the end of last game to now, we're just working hard, everybody being disciplined, working on leadership all those things that make a good team great. It's only going to get more intense as we put the pads on and get ready to go. There's a lot of talented guys that are ready to contribute."

"A lot of guys" may be an understatement. With six players returning from season-ending injuries and two new recruits coming in, Georgia will have 11 scholarship linebackers fighting for three (and in many respects two, due to the use of nickel packages against the spread) starting jobs.

Here's a quick breakdown of how things might shake out...

Rennie Curran

'09 Class/Position:
2008 in review: Curran already had the look of a special player, but his 2008 exceeded all expectations except possibly his own. Not only did Curran become the first Georgia player to reach 100 tackles (his 115 led the SEC) since Thomas Davis in 2003, but his leadership on the field and in the locker room was the glue that held a troubled Bulldogs defense together. Oh, and his forced fumble against South Carolina probably saved Georgia fans from jumping off rooftops early in the year.
Quotable: "My main thing is for the defense as a whole to be successful, and I feel like that starts with me setting the tempo," Curran said. "It's just things like that working on my football knowledge, so hopefully if a guy's about to make a mistake, I can help him out, point him out when he's doing something wrong, just knowing the entire defense as a whole."
2009 projection: Curran said he's shooting for All-American honors in 2009, and it would be hard to argue with that projection. With Jeff Owens back and healthy, the leadership role won't fall completely to Curran this year, but after last season, it's pretty clear that this is his defense, and he expects everyone else around him to work as hard as he does -- which is pretty darned hard.

Akeem Dent

'09 Class/Position:
2008 in review: Dent made 10 starts last season at Sam linebacker, racking up 46 tackles on the season. When Georgia was at its worst, Dent was at his best -- recording 10 tackles in the loss to Alabama and six in the loss to Georgia Tech. Because Georgia played so many spread offenses, Dent wasn't on the field as much as he would have liked a year ago, but he and Curran were really the only two LBs to stay healthy all season, and his consistency was huge for a group that had a lot of trouble staying out of the trainer's room.
Quotable: "Going back and looking at a lot of the clips from the season," linebackers coach John Jancek said, "Akeem Dent really did a great job."
2009 projection: It's not surprising that Jancek words the quote that way, because like a good bottle of wine, Dent's season is better appreciated after a little time has passed. He was never the star on the field, but he was consistent all season for a unit that had little consistency. While he's probably the favorite to start at Sam linebacker in 2009, he is clearly in the running for a starting gig at Mike, too, which would mean a big step up in both playing time and responsibility next season -- a promotion well earned through some impressive (if understated) play a year ago.

Darryl Gamble

2008 in review: Gamble had a breakout season a year ago after stepping in for injured senior Dannell Ellerbe in October. Gamble made his first career start at Mike against Tennessee and responded by posting three straight exceptional performances, culminating with a monster game against LSU in which he returned two interceptions for touchdowns, tying an NCAA record. Gamble missed the bowl game with a broken leg but still finished third on the team with 60 tackles and added 15 QB hurries. Overall, Gamble started six games, two at Sam and four at Mike in 2008.
Quotable: "I think Darryl came in and was very productive when Dannell got injured," Jancek said. "I think it'll really be Darryl, Akeem Dent, Marcus Washington's back there's three guys right there that are going to be competing for that starting middle linebacker position."
2009 projection: Gamble has to be the early favorite to win the starting job at Mike given how well he played in relief of Ellerbe a year ago, but there's certainly nothing set in stone yet. Still, watching Gamble progress throughout his three seasons in Athens has been fun. The kid seems to make strides virtually every week. If he can take the next step from playmaking youngster to consistent star over the next six months, he might not only earn the starting job at Mike, but he could turn out to be one of Georgia's top defensive players in 2009.

Marcus Washington

'09 Class/Position: RSSr./MLB
2008 in review: After a breakout 2007 season in which he started six games and made 40 tackles (including six in Georgia's win over Florida) Washington's 2008 season was an almost complete loss. Washington injured his shoulder before spring camp and missed the entire season, but he said his rehab allowed him more time in the film room and an extra opportunity to study the game from the sidelines -- experience that he said made him a better football player.
Quotable: "I was kind of coming into my own, starting to make a couple of plays, and to get set back like that was rough. But I guess that's what life is all about. It's about perseverance," Washington said. "Mike position is kind of wide open right now, so right now as far as I'm concerned, I'm fighting for a position, and that's the way I'm going to approach this offseason."
2009 projection: It would be a shame for Washington not to have a big role on this year's defense after all he has been through, but at the start of spring drills, he would have to seem like the odd man out of any three-man rotation. Washington has all the skills necessary and, obviously, plenty of experience, but after strong seasons by Dent and Gamble, the fifth-year senior is probably behind both of them on the depth chart. That could certainly change, however, once Washington gets back onto the field at full speed. Washington predicts there's a strong chance that there could be a three- or even four-man rotation at Mike this season that would certainly include plenty of playing time for him.

Akeem Hebron

'09 Class/Position: Jr./WLB
2008 in review:
Hebron came back to Georgia after a year at GMC in 2008, but it was hardly a memorable return engagement. The Maryland native was booted from the team after two underage drinking arrests his freshman season, but a year at Georgia Military got him back into the good graces of the UGA coaching staff. Still, he played sparingly backing up Curran to start the '08 season, seeing action in six games but making just one tackle before dislocating his ankle and missing the remainder of the year.
Quotable: "You take guys like Akeem Hebron, for example, had gotten dismissed for a semester, and now he's back doing things on the right path," Washington said. "With that situation, experience is the best teacher. He had to learn the hard way. Sometimes that's what it takes."
2009 projection: Hebron is the posterboy for turning a career around off the field at Georgia, but in 2009 he needs to prove he can do the same on the gridiron. With Curran ahead of him at Will and a bevy of experience battling for the other two linebacking jobs, Hebron isn't likely to earn a starting spot outright this spring, but a strong camp could put him in the mix by the time the Dawgs open fall camp. Regardless, his return to health should make him a solid choice to offer key contributions on special teams -- an area Georgia really struggled to find talented players to fill roles a year ago.

Marcus Dowtin

'09 Class/Position: So./WLB, MLB
2008 in review: Dowtin's career at Georgia got off to a dubious start when he was injured in a downtown Athens fight that resulted in two players being suspended from the team just before fall camp opened. His injuries were minor, however, and Dowtin managed to get on the field with regularity as a true freshman. He played in all 13 games -- one of just three Georgia linebackers healthy enough to do so last year -- making 17 tackles and forcing a fumble.
Quotable: "As far as Marcus Dowtin, he's a talented young man," Jancek said. "He's as talented as anybody we have at the linebacker position. This spring will be critical for him to show what he can do. Last year as a true freshman he saw some playing time but not as much as I'm sure he would like, but I thought he got a good taste of it and really should become more comfortable this offseason with his position. I look for big things from him."
2009 projection: Dowtin was among the most talked-about freshmen on the practice field last year, and both players and coaches are expecting bigger things in his sophomore campaign. His youth probably means he'll open the year a bit further down the depth chart than he would like, but if there's anyone on the team likely to produce the same breakthroughs in 2009 that Gamble did a year ago, it's Dowtin.

Charles White

'09 Class/Position: RSSo./MLB
2008 in review: A smart and physical player, White was highly recruited out of Columbia, S.C., but two full seasons into his Georgia career, he has yet to see the field. White redshirted in 2007 and figured to earn some playing time in a reserve role a year ago. His plans were foiled before the season even started, however, when he tore his Achilles in fall camp, missing the year.
Quotable: "Charles White has been working very hard to come back from that torn Achilles and he's going to be able to show what he can do this spring," Jancek said.
2009 projection: White appears to be a victim of a numbers game that doesn't add up in his favor this year. He figured to be back to full speed for spring drills and certainly has a shot at earning a serious role, but with a wealth of experienced players ahead of him on the depth chart at Mike, it's hard to see where he fits in this year other than as a special teamer. Still, simply getting onto the field in a game in '09 has to be considered a major step for him.

Darius Dewbery

'09 Class/Position: Sr./SLB
2008 in review: The 2008 season was filled with a good bit of turmoil for many Bulldogs players, but there probably wasn't anyone on the team who went through more of a roller-coaster ride than Dewberry. The Fort Valley native battled a painful groin injury throughout the offseason and was just getting back to full strength and expecting to battle for a starting job when a fight outside a downtown bar landed him in hot water with the coaching staff. Dewberry wasn't part of the fight, but he admitted to destroying property at an area hospital after the incident, and he was suspended for the first two games of the year. When he finally returned to action, he barely saw the field for several weeks. Finally, two months into the season, he got his chance and turned in a masterful performance against Vanderbilt that included two tackles and an interception (and he nearly had a second one). Three weeks later, however, a shoulder injury ended his season. He finished with just three tackles all year.
Quotable: "With his body type and the way that he plays the game, he certainly would be a candidate to (move to DE), but I think we have to wait and see how the defensive ends perform this spring," Jancek said. "Also with those guys, we're going to be getting some guys back the first part of the summer from injuries, too, so I think it's just a wait and see before we can say that's definitely a possibility."
2009 projection: Dewberry played as a freshman and made five starts as a sophomore, but a career that started with tons of promise has fizzled due to injuries and off-field problems. He now finds himself battling for minimal playing time as a senior, and while his fellow linebackers will be competing this spring, he won't be healthy enough for contact until June. If Dewberry stays at LB, he isn't likely to see a ton of action in '09, but a move to defensive end similar to the one Brandon Miller made two years ago could give him a final chance at redemption in his last season as a Bulldog. Either way, Dewberry figured to be a key special teams contributor.

Christian Robinson, Chase Vasser and Dexter Moody

Robinson missed nearly all of 2008 with various injuries, making his redshirt season a lost cause for the most part. The knowledge he picked up in the film room could give him an outside shot at some playing time in 2009, but it's not likely. He does have plenty of talent, but he won't be too much farther along when fall camp opens than Vasser or Moody, the two linebackers Georgia added in this year's signing class. Vasser was hoping to be an early enrollee, but that didn't pan out, and it certainly would seem likely that either he or Moody (or both) will land a redshirt in 2009.


jferg NC dawg said...

Thanks for the LB update. Great work!!

With the 'bevy' of LBs and lots of good talent in DTs and not much depth at DE, what are the chances we can do some 3-4 looks? Can you imagine.....
Geno, Jeff, and Kade on the line at one time?
Add Curran, Dent, Gamble, and Washington (or a few others) at
I'm pretty sure a 3-4 would be more effective against a "running spread like UF" than the Nickel which is more of a pass D. Your thoughts? Thoughts of other readers?

Anonymous said...

Are you forgetting Mike Gilliard?

Anonymous said...

I'd like to see a guy with Mike Gilliard's size play at safety. Sort of Taylor Mays-esque.

David Hale said...

JFerg... I like the idea. It'd sort of be the opposite of LSU's four defensive end set. I'm hoping to chat with Willie Martinez next week, so I'll try to discuss the idea of a 3-4 with him. I wouldn't hold my breath, but hey, it has to be something that's considered, right?

jferg said...

Yes, I believe it's something that should be considered. The greatest coaches/managers/CEOs adapt their methods to take advantage of strengths and hide weaknesses. Obviously, DT and LB will be strenghts....logic says yes to 3-4 (at the appropriate time).