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Inside linebackers were an issue for UGA in 2011, but might be strength in 2012

Updated: August 26, 2012, 12:05 PM ET
By David Ching | DawgNation

ATHENS, Ga. -- This time a year ago, perhaps no position on Georgia's roster seemed more uncertain than the inside linebacker.

[+] EnlargeAlec Ogletree
Sam Greenwood/Getty ImagesLB Alec Ogletree will add experience to the Georgia defense this season.
Alec Ogletree and Christian Robinson were entrenched as the starters, but it was anybody's guess how the players behind them on the depth chart might fare -- and the Bulldogs found out early in the season when both Ogletree and Robinson went down with injuries.

It was rocky at first, with walk-on Jeremy Sulek actually taking most of the snaps in Ogletree's place after he broke his foot early in the season-opening loss to Boise State. But then-freshman Amarlo Herrera jumped into the starting lineup the next week against South Carolina. Then-junior Mike Gilliard followed the next week against Coastal Carolina, with Robinson out following a foot injury suffered late in the loss to the Gamecocks.

Both players made use of their most extensive playing time to date so that when Robinson and Ogletree returned to the lineup, the Bulldogs had four competent inside linebackers.

"I go down and Tree goes down and suddenly everybody's learning a lot quicker. Everybody shot up so quickly," Robinson said. "It's like when you feed things. If you water things, they're going to grow and I think a lot of guys caught up to where we have great linebackers."

Now instead of being one of the biggest question marks, the inside linebackers rank among the team's most drama-free position groups entering the fall. Of course there are questions about whether All-SEC candidate Ogletree will be suspended to open the season -- and how long that suspension might last -- following reports that he failed a drug test in the spring.

But with Gilliard, Robinson, Herrera and sophomore Ramik Wilson -- who splits time between inside and outside linebacker -- the Bulldogs seem to have solutions instead of questions even if their top performer is not available early in the season.

"There's guys that went out and played. They understand they have to play better and still have to improve for us to be where we want to be," inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti said. "But it does help that you've seen them and they've been in big situations. They've been in all sorts of different situations and that does help when you go into your first game. I'll still be nervous."

Herrera was one of the pleasant surprises on the defense last season, even if he admittedly wasn't always sure what he was doing for at least the first month of the season. It was probably the Week 6 win against Tennessee -- for which Gilliard was named SEC Defensive Player of the Week after recording 12 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, a sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup -- where the inside linebackers began to comprehend their potential.

"We felt like we had something special at inside linebacker. Everybody can play any one of those positions and they can produce," Herrera said.

Olivadotti said all of his players know the terminology to contribute in any inside linebacker role depending on the defense's alignment on a given play. That will surely help if Ogletree is out, as will Wilson's ability to move to the middle if needed.

"He's inside, he's outside, he's all over the place," Olivadotti said. "He'll be hard to keep up with."

But what will help most of all is that previously unused players proved that they can perform capably while on the field, giving the group a collective confidence that might not have existed a year ago.

"Everybody knows what to do and knows their role and tries to play that to the best of their ability," Gilliard said. "I feel like just as a unit, all of us try to make each one of us better. If one of us has a flaw, the other ones try to correct it. So I just feel like we're & trying to do big things as a unit and definitely as a defense this fall."