At this point, it's hard to gauge how Todd Grantham's new 3-4 defense is going to affect the current roster of Bulldogs other than to say it's definitely going to shake things up.
But of all the fan-friendly quotes I've heard from Grantham so far, I think this one caught my eye more than any others when it comes to player development:
"The best thing you can do is create one-on-ones. You try to get the guys that can win for you against the guys that can’t win for them. I don’t think there’s any question that can be an asset for us, and I think that some players will thrive because of that. I think some guys will enhance their careers because of that, because we’re going to find ways to make guys in protection – whether it be a back or a freshman guard or tackle – we’re going to find ways to make those guys block.”
Add that to Grantham's insistence that the best players will play and there's a clean slate for those who hadn't seen much playing time in the past, and I'd say it's a safe bet that we'll see some new stars emerge on defense next season.
So, with that in mind, I tried to put together a quick list of five players I think might see the biggest impact in Year 1 from Grantham's arrival.
Now, keep in mind, this isn't a list of which players I think will find the most success. My guess is Justin Houston is going to be a first-team All-SEC guy in 2010 -- but he might have been that anyway.
And it's not a list of who the new faces will be this season. Players like Garrison Smith and Jakar Hamilton appear to have bright futures, but again, they would have likely had bright futures regardless of the DC.
This list is of five guys who have already been in Athens for at least a year who have a chance to see the career path they were on shifted in a positive direction now that the new staff is (almost) in place. For some, it's a matter of the scheme now matching their skills. For others, it's about getting a fresh start with a new opportunity to prove themselves. And for others, it's just about getting some better coaching to iron out the flaws in their game.
Anyway, here's what I came up with...
Cornelius Washington (RSo./DE). At 6-4, 250, Washington is a big boy, but his pass-rush skills have always hinged on his speed. Add to that the fact that in the 4-3, he was going to be stuck behind Houston and Demarcus Dobbs on the depth chart, and you have a guy with a ton of skill who wasn't being utilized in the best way. Enter the 3-4 and it's a completely different story. While Dobbs possesses the wider frame that could keep him at DE, Washington is a prototype outside linebacker in Grantham's scheme and could be an absolute stud as a pass rusher. If he teams with Houston at OLB in 2010, Washington's numbers could be off the charts, and Georgia's pass rush could be downright frightening.
Akeem Hebron (Sr./LB). I'm not entirely sure where Hebron fits in, but the fact of the matter is, he arrived at Georgia as one of the most highly recruiting linebackers the Dawgs had landed in recent years and his career has come and gone with about as little fanfare as any top-100 recruit could have. He has appeared in just nine games and made just four tackles total at Georgia, but with a fresh start under Grantham and the departure of Rennie Curran, there's a chance Hebron could salvage the final season of his college career much the way Brandon Miller did in 2007.
Marcus Dowtin (Jr./LB). Dowtin made huge steps forward in 2009 and was arguably Georgia's second best linebacker already. But the biggest chink in Dowtin's armor has been his consistency. I've been told by Curran and John Jancek and Darryl Gamble and even Dowtin himself that he has a tendency to take a play or two off on occasion or to let down his guard from time to time. Something tells me that Grantham and his 11 years of NFL experience won't be letting that happen any longer. Dowtin is talented enough to be a future star at the next level, and I wouldn't be shocked if Grantham gets him to just that point. Add to that Dowtin's strong tackling skills, strong work in blitz situations and ability to play in coverage and he seems like a good fit at ILB in the 3-4 to boot.
Kiante Tripp (Sr./DE). This might be wishful thinking on my part, but for anyone who has followed Tripp's career, you have to root for the kid to finally make something of himself at Georgia. He's been misused from the beginning, and he hasn't complained. Wherever coaches have needed him, he's gone. And each time he makes a position change, he gets thrown to the wolves, then cast aside quickly. The same was true last year after moving to DE when Tripp struggled to get onto the field after some early injury concerns. And as much as it would be a shame for a guy who has given his all for Georgia to miss out on a finding some success, it would be a crime for UGA to let someone with Tripp's combination of size and athleticism to graduate without turning him into a real player. Tripp's body type could work very well on the D line in Grantham's 3-4, and while he'll no doubt be pushed by some younger talent like Abry Jones and Kwame Geathers, he won't be without a good group of fans pulling for him to turn the corner after so many setbacks.
Jordan Love (RFr./CB). A lot of competition for the final slot -- with Geathers and Jones among the younger players who might thrive in new roles and Darryl Gamble or Akeem Dent among the older players who might cap their careers nicely in the 3-4 -- but I didn't want to only consider the front seven. In any defense, it's incumbent upon the corners to provide solid play in the run game, and Prince Miller did that really well last year. In the 3-4, that responsibility becomes even more important. Certainly Branden Smith could fill that role and do it well, but Love is bigger and more physical and could find himself in competition for a bit more playing time this season than he might have been otherwise. A foot injury kept him off the field in Year 1 of his career, which might have put him behind the 8-ball with the previous regime, but a strong spring could now leave him in prime position to be, at worst, the top corner off the bench in nickel situations.
So, what do you guys think? Any sleepers you're particularly excited about in 2010? Any veterans you're hoping will get one last shot?