Bulldogs finally healty on defense
Grantham can't hide excitement over having linebackers all back and at full speed
ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia has played seven games and hasn't had its preseason defensive starting lineup in place for a single game.
Thanks to inside linebacker Alec Ogletree's return from a broken foot and outside linebacker Cornelius Washington's return from a two-game suspension, the Bulldogs (5-2, 4-1 SEC) on Saturday will play for the first time with a full complement of projected starters available when they face rival Florida (4-3, 2-3) in Jacksonville.
Despite losing starters Ogletree, Washington, defensive end DeAngelo Tyson, safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Christian Robinson for at least one game apiece to either injury or discipline-related issues, the Bulldogs managed to perform effectively on defense.
They trail only dominant squads from Alabama and LSU among SEC leaders in total defense and rushing defense, rank fourth behind South Carolina, Alabama and Florida against the pass and trail only Alabama in third-down defense.
Now that everyone is healthy and backups including Mike Gilliard and Amarlo Herrera played well in the starters' absence, the Bulldogs expect big things from themselves in the final five games of the regular season.
"The sky's the limit, really," said Rambo, who is tied for second in the nation with five interceptions. "If everybody goes out there and does their job, there's no telling how good we can be on defense because we've got the athletes."
Even in this weekend's game, the Bulldogs won't have their complete roster of starters available for a full game, however. Safety Shawn Williams, who started the first seven games, is suspended for the first half against Florida, as is nose guard Kwame Geathers, for committing a flagrant personal foul in the Bulldogs' last game, against Vanderbilt.
Not that this will be anything new for Georgia's defense. By this point the Bulldogs are fully experienced at plugging in new players at the various defensive positions.
Starting with the season-opening loss against Boise State, the Bulldogs were without Rambo, who served a one-game disciplinary suspension. Ogletree went down with a broken foot in the first quarter against the Broncos and sat out the next six games.
But the sophomore returned to practice last week, and Georgia coach Mark Richt predicted during his Sunday teleconference that Ogletree will be in the starting lineup against Florida.
"He's playing just where he left off, which is downhill, wants to hit people, wants to run through them," Richt said Monday. "We're really excited about seeing him moving around full speed with no limitations whatsoever."
Robinson went down with a foot injury of his own in Game 2 against South Carolina, leaving Gilliard and Herrera -- neither of whom had ever started a college game -- to man the inside linebacker spots, but both players performed capably. The highlight was Gilliard's 12-tackle performance against Tennessee, for which he was named the SEC's Defensive Player of the Week.
"I knew he could do it, and Amarlo, he's been coming along well as far as being a true freshman, so they stepped up real big," Ogletree said.
With Washington's return, the Bulldogs get back one of their fastest and most effective pass rushers. The junior enjoyed the best game of his career with two sacks against Mississippi State hours before his arrest on DUI and speeding charges, which cost him the next two games.
The speed he and Ogletree will inject into the defense is particularly what excited Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham when discussing their return.
"When you've got guys that can close and accelerate and get more speed on the field, you've got a chance to get [quarterbacks] down," Grantham said.
Also of note is that Robinson is operating at near 100 percent of his physical capability for the first time since his foot injury against South Carolina.
Now, instead of the shortage of proven inside linebackers at the beginning of the season, Georgia has four available who can do the job. That created an issue that position coach Kirk Olivadotti hadn't enjoyed the good fortune of confronting yet this season. He might actually have difficulty getting enough game reps for everyone who deserves playing time.
Nonetheless, the Bulldogs' defense is finally healthy after persevering through an assortment of injuries and self-created problems in the first half. With everyone back on the practice field, they are optimistic about what the reunited collection of starters will be able to accomplish down the stretch.
"We're going to be able to go full speed. Nobody's going to be holding back," said Robinson, who estimated he's at 97 percent. "With all the people, there's competition. Everybody's going to play hard in practice because they want those reps, but it's a good competition because it makes everybody better. I think having everybody back will elevate our game and make everybody excited."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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