Channing Tindall tackle

Channing Tindall makes a solo tackle against the run game against Massachusetts in 2018.

Part four of a six-part series, highlighting what the Georgia football team needs to win championships in 2019.

According to ESPN, since 1998, Georgia football is “linebacker U.” With big name players such as Roquan Smith, Justin Houston and Alec Ogletree it’s hard to argue with Georgia’s success at the position (though we can argue against ESPN omitting Georgia from the “running back U” list altogether).

With this list coming so close to the start of the 2019 season, there’s now a bevy of expectations on this year’s linebackers. Perhaps those expectations aren’t justified. D’Andre Walker and Natrez Patrick are no longer with the team.

There are many more questions about this group of linebackers than what’s being asked. A big key to Georgia’s success is how quickly they can find answers to those questions.

In part three about the defensive line, you read how a slow start for that group replacing two solid starters affected Georgia’s defense early in the year. Fortunately for the defensive line, Georgia’s weakest stretch of games last year was their first six. The team had time to find answers on the line.

That isn’t the case for the linebackers this season. On the road against SEC foe Vanderbilt for week one and at home against Notre Dame in week four. Games against improved Tennessee and South Carolina teams occupy games five and six.

THE ANCHOR OF THE DEFENSE, MONTY RICE

Not every position in the linebacker group is of concern. Monty Rice has the Roquan Smith skillset. Rice is a sure tackler according to the Pro Football Focus’ miss tackling percentage chart. He plays sideline-to-sideline; blitz, man or zone; backfield or downfield all like Smith and he can do all of that on any given down.

Rice wasn’t at Smith’s caliber last season, and might not even be this season. But he doesn’t have to be, Roquan Smith was a rare talent. He just needs to be the best Monty Rice he can be and that’s more than enough for Georgia.

Why is Rice so important to Georgia? Not every defense has a player like him. There are a lot of great defenses in the nation. What separates the great defenses from elite defenses are the players who make an impact on multiple areas of the field. Those are the defenses that don’t succumb to the mobile quarterbacks, have all the responses for diverse running back stables, and can clog the most passing lanes.

Without Rice against Alabama, Georgia’s defense fell from a near-elite state. When Jalen Hurts entered the game, there wasn’t a Bulldog who could keep him in the backfield and the rest is history. Georgia lost the conference crown and missed out on the playoffs. There’s no better illustration of how important Rice is to Georgia.

IMMEDIATE IMPACT FOR SMITH AND JOHNSON

Georgia’s 2019 No. 1 ranked recruiting class is unique in that the Dawgs didn’t sign one No. 1 overall player, they signed two. Nolan Smith is the headliner, but No. 1 overall junior college player Jermaine Johnson is not someone to overlook. The recruiting media expects both to contribute early for the Dawgs and both were impressive in the G-Day Game.

They’ll have their chance to justify their lofty rankings early this season. Georgia will rotate players often against Vanderbilt as the depth chart is always larger in week one. Games against Murray State from D-1 FCS and Arkansas State from the Sun Belt will give Smith and Johnson more opportunities to improve their stock.

What do Smith and Johnson bring to Georgia? They are pass rushers primarily. They possess a trait the Bulldogs lacked in 2018, though you can attribute some of those struggles to the interior of the defense not occupying blockers. Regardless, Georgia needs to do a better job at getting to the quarterback. Some passers had way too much time to throw the ball against the Bulldogs. Which is O.K. when those passers come from SEC programs, not when they come from Massachusetts and Middle Tennessee State.

Smith and Johnson are also unique to one another, which will help get both on the field together. Smith is a true pass rush linebacker, more suited at standing up before the snap. He can play on either side of the defense in the 3-4 as a jack linebacker, and could even play sam linebacker lined up in the second level. Johnson starts plays in a three-point stance so he’ll primarily play jack linebacker, but he has enough size to play some snaps at defensive end.

If they both live up to expectations, imagine Smith and Johnson bookending Georgia’s front seven to meet at the quarterback, or even lining up together on one side to overwhelm the offensive line.

NOT SO FAST, WHAT ABOUT COX AND GRANT

Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, there are still two solid outside linebackers with experience who aren’t going to just move out of the newcomer’s way. Walter Grant started eight games at sam linebacker in 2018. He only missed starts when Georgia opened with a fifth defensive back instead of a fourth linebacker. In those other six games, he was the first extra linebacker to see the field and he appeared in all 15 games in 2017.

He didn’t wow anyone last season, considering three other defensive players lost their starting jobs last season, Grant holding his position atop the SLB chart is an accomplishment. Expectations are high for Grant after 29 games and eight starts in his first two seasons.

Brenton Cox was one of seven five-star recruits from the 2018 class to see the field immediately, appearing in 11 games as Walker’s backup. Despite the playing time, Cox didn’t quite live up to expectations.

What to expect out of Cox and Grant? Barring injuries, the defensive line will be much better early this season. Cox and Grant won’t have to fight offensive linemen the same way they did last year. Grant will switch with Smith based on the situation. When the coaches demand a pass rush, Smith will come in. Grant will hold on to his SLB position the rest of the time.

Four of his 21 tackles last year came in the win over Missouri. If he continues to progress as a player, those types of performances will be common place for him. Grant is not going to climb high on the sack list, but he’s going to be in on the tackle on quickly stopped run plays. Though he’s facing stiff competition from Smith and other outside backers. If his growth has stunted, he’ll lose his starting job by the middle of the season.

Cox should begin living up to the five-star expectations and become a consistent pass rusher if he can handle the pressure from the newcomers. Which Georgia will need if the opposite happens and Smith and Johnson aren’t ready to contribute early on. But if they are, combinations including them and Cox will be tough for opposing offenses to handle.

THE REST OF THE LINEBACKERS

Depth is not a concern for the linebackers. If one player can’t step up, there’s plenty more who will take his place. Here’s a quick rundown of those players and what they need to contribute in 2019:

Adam Anderson – OLB: Anderson didn’t have as big of a splash as a freshman last year as other 2018 signees. He still had a decent freshman campaign, playing in seven games and notching 16 tackles, including 2.5 for a loss.

Like Robert Beal on the other side of the defensive formation, Anderson is kind of a forgotten man, behind an incumbent starter and ahead of an incoming blue-chip. Since enrolling, he’s added 10 pounds, climbing the scales from an undersized 214 lbs. We’ll see this season if size was all Anderson lacked during his freshman year.

Robert Beal – OLB: One of the top players from Georgia’s No. 3 ranked recruiting class in 2017, Beal redshirted that year and didn’t play much early last year. But as the 2018 season progressed, Beal started playing more often especially after impressing coaches with a pair of quarterback hurries at LSU.

He’s having a quiet summer again, but he may be one of those players who makes all their noise on Saturdays. He probably won’t start this year, but he’ll contribute and allow the coaches to make a substitution without having to worry about a drop of quality.

Rian Davis – ILB: Davis was a top-100 player coming out of high school, but he’s coming off serious knee injury. Don’t expect much from Davis early this year, though he has the potential to earn playing time late in the year, or later if coaches want to keep the redshirt on him.

Nakobe Dean – ILB: At one time overshadowed by Nolan Smith, Dean received a lot of attention recently when head coach Kirby Smart said he’s never had a kid come in and just naturally understand football as well as Dean.

That’s going to be tough for the true freshman to live up to, especially with a deep, talented depth chart of inside backers to work with.

Tae Crowder – ILB: The only returning starter mentioned here, Crowder isn’t a flashy player, but he’s reliable. Who would have guessed the player who stopped the squib kick in the Rose Bowl to help set up the field goal before half time would parlay that into a starting job? Yet here we are.

Even though he doesn’t have the gaudy skillset of Rice or Roquan Smith, he always seems to be near the ball, which helped him become a starter last year while making 53 tackles. Expect the redshirt senior, former running back to have an even better year in 2019.

Nate McBride – ILB: McBride is heading into his junior season and it’s pretty much now or never for him. He showed potential as a special teams headhunter in 2017, but new fair catch rules took away his niche. He has the same skill set as Roquan Smith and Monty Rice, but clearly something is missing. With several additions to the inside linebacker positions, the climb to the top of the depth chart has gotten steeper for McBride.

Azeez Ojulari – OLB: Ojulari redshirted last year, but thanks to new redshirt rules, was able to play meaningful minutes late in the year and was featured heavily in the Sugar Bowl. He understandably struggled as a first-year player in a big game, but there’s a reason he played such a large role besides Walker’s injury.

Ojulari will contribute again this year and compete for a back-up role. Though even as a third-stringer he’ll play meaningful minutes.

Channing Tindall – ILB: Despite being the fourth best linebacker in Georgia’s 2018 class, Channing Tindall probably had the best season. He appeared in every game as a backup, but wasn’t quite ready to supplant Rice at mike linebacker when he was injured. Yet, Tindall ended the year with 17 tackles and two sacks. Would have been three sacks if not for intentional grounding robbing him of a sack in the SEC Championship Game.

With a year under his belt, he’ll be ready to step in if Rice can’t stay healthy. His original evaluations out of high school said he needed to bulk up to around 230, but his sub-220-lb weight hasn’t hampered him so far. Though, with more talent than ever at the position, we’ll see how much size matters to the defensive coaching staff.

Quay Walker – ILB: A four-star with the rave reviews of a five-star, it seems like only a matter of time for Walker to step up. He played in all 14 games last year and saved his best performance for Georgia Tech with three stops. He later won Special Teams Newcomer of the Year at the team’s post season gala.

Walker is considered a good player around the line of scrimmage. He can rush quarterbacks and stop running backs. Behind the returning starters, Tindall and Walker seem the most likely to earn a feature backup role at inside linebacker.

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