Like a lot of you, I spent some of the holiday weekend enjoying Georgia’s takeover of the SEC Network. I have a DVR backlog now that should clear up just in time for the season.
One of the featured games was the 2005 SEC Championship – Georgia’s first game against Les Miles and the second SEC title in four years. The Tigers were slight favorites and the higher-ranked team, but Georgia jumped on LSU with a couple of D.J. Shockley bombs to Sean Bailey. Georgia’s defense knocked Jamarcus Russell out of the game, and Tim Jennings sealed the win with a late pick six. It was a great win that salvaged a season disrupted by the midseason injury to Shockley.
While Shockley was the focus of that team both in terms of leadership and performance, Georgia’s running game took a bit of a back seat. It was a transitional period between dominant feature backs: Musa Smith left after 2002, and Knowshon Moreno made his debut in 2007. The 2005 running game was a tailback-by-committee with four players (Shockley included) getting at least 65 rushing attempts. Thomas Brown, Danny Ware, and Kregg Lumpkin made up the trio getting most of the carries with Brown leading the way in both attempts and yardage.
These were good backs. You had a three-star Rivals.com prospect (Ware), a four-star (Brown), and even a five-star (Lumpkin). All three eventually spent time on an NFL roster. All three had at least 1,500 career rushing yards at Georgia. Brown finished his career as one of Georgia’s top 10 backs in career attempts and yardage.
It was still a period of Georgia football where you were left wanting more from the running game. The committee approach wasn’t bad, but neither was it greater than the sum of its parts. It wasn’t obvious until 2007 when Moreno (with substantial help from Brown) reminded us what a running game operating at a high level looked like. The 2005 running game, including Shockley, put up 2,108 yards. That total increased by over 500 yards in 2007 without a mobile quarterback (never mind 3,352 rushing yards in 2014). The trio of Brown, Lumpkin, and Ware put up 1,563 yards in 2005. Nick Chubb alone had 1,594 last season.
As I watched that great 2005 game and that group of capable tailbacks, my mind wandered to the present and to, of all things, Georgia’s outside linebackers. Again we have a highly-recruited group with obvious talent and pro potential that seems to be on the cusp of something more. Certainly there have been moments of individual brilliance, but there have also been several games where the outside linebackers have been non-factors or even weaknesses.
It raised some eyebrows in the spring when Lindy’s quoted an anonymous SEC coach who said,
I think those two guys at outside linebacker (Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins) are talented, but not superstars. I think they are a product of the recruiting machine and hype.
While our first instinct is to get defensive about a quote like that, I admit I see where it’s coming from. The last bit about recruiting hype is inflammatory, but the “talented but not superstars” line hits a little too close to home.
Jenkins appeared to be the heir apparent to Jarvis Jones after a standout 2012 Florida game. His tackles have increased each year, but his sack totals haven’t. Floyd contributed right away as a freshman, but his numbers stayed level in his second season. Carter made the most of his time as a true freshman playing behind more experienced players, and he’s testing the creativity of the coaches as they try to get all of these talented linebackers on the field.
There have been injuries along the way, and Floyd especially was derailed by a shoulder injury towards the end of last season. That injury had a silver lining: selfishly, we are glad to see Floyd back for another year. It also opened the door for Carter to see much more playing time during the bowl game, and he didn’t disappoint. The players have also been used in different roles. Jenkins has drifted towards more of a traditional 4-3 defensive end role, leading one NFL scout to want to see more out of him as an edge rusher. Floyd has been that edge rusher, but he’s also been versatile enough to drop back into the difficult star position at times. He’s listed as both an outside and inside linebacker on the preseason depth chart. Carter hasn’t had time to settle into much of a defined role, and he’s been lined up all over the place to cause mayhem in the pass rush.
Seth Emerson put it well last week when he concluded that “Jenkins and Floyd have to hear the time ticking on their chance to become stars.” They’re gifted players with certain NFL futures – the shoulder injury is probably the only thing that kept Floyd from entering the 2015 draft. We’re not going to get into ESPN “elite” territory by trying to define exactly what would meet Emerson’s definition of a star player, but Jarvis Jones and his 155 tackles and 28 sacks over two seasons wasn’t that long ago. That followed Justin Houston’s 10 sacks and 18.5 tackles for loss in 2010.
Even ignoring specific numbers, a high standard was in place for the outside linebacker position, and all three of Georgia’s current OLB standouts have shown the ability to play to that standard. With Carter gaining experience, Floyd healthy, and Jenkins stepping into the leadership role of a senior, each is in a place for production to skyrocket and, more importantly, for the unit as a whole to carry an improving defense.