Plugging in the middle
Jonathan Taylor, youthful D-linemen have big hole to fill at nose tackle
ATHENS, Ga. -- Kwame Geathers' announcement last week that he would forgo his senior season answered the final question about Georgia's underclassmen in regard to declaring for the NFL draft.
With fourth-year junior Geathers (listed at 6-foot-6 and 355 pounds) and senior John Jenkins (6-3, 358) leaving the team, the Bulldogs lose not only their two most experienced nose guards, but two massive players whose sheer size commanded opposing blockers' attention. Their departures create opportunity for new candidates to take over, and one of the leading candidates, with the start of spring practice less than seven weeks away, is redshirt freshman Jonathan Taylor.
"For me being redshirted, it's gone good because John and Kwame, they're like big brothers to me," Taylor said last month after one of the Bulldogs' bowl practices. "I watch things I can improve on from them. When they go, I watch things I can improve for my technique."
After arriving at Georgia from tiny Jenkins County High School, and with Jenkins and Geathers already established at his position, Taylor knew from the outset that he would likely redshirt. It was a convenient situation for Georgia's coaching staff, which did not need to force the former Under Armour All-American into a role he might not have been prepared for yet.
"I think Jonathan has the tools to be a good player at some point," said then-defensive line coach Rodney Garner. "Obviously he came from a small program, so the development, there's tremendous room for him to grow as a player. But he does have tools that are very encouraging that you see that he could be a good player."
Taylor needs to put those tools on display this spring in order to secure some of the available playing time. He will have competition from versatile early enrollees Chris Mayes, who re-signed with the Bulldogs after initially failing to qualify in 2011 and spending the last two years in junior college, and fellow 2012 Under Armour All-American John Atkins, who failed to qualify last year and re-signed with Georgia after spending the fall at Hargrave Military Academy.
Sophomore Michael Thornton will also be in the mix, having played in all 14 games in 2012 as a reserve. But the Bulldogs' collection of players who can play nose guard is essentially unproven across the board.
"We knew there were seniors leaving and then also we knew there's a chance that Kwame would decide to go when he did. So we've been kind of preparing for that in our recruiting numbers," Georgia coach Mark Richt said last week. "So I just think there's going to be more opportunity for the guys that are on campus, obviously, but the ones that are coming in new are going to have a chance to find some playing time that Kwame would have had. So you keep developing and getting them in there and see what they can do."
Although Jenkins and Geathers were known for their massive size, Taylor said he actually wanted to drop weight before the 2013 season. During bowl practices, he said he was at 324 pounds, but he said his target playing weight will be 315. That, he said, would help maintain the optimum balance of size and speed for his 6-foot-4 frame -- not that anybody questions that he has plenty of each.
"He's real, real strong," defensive end Garrison Smith said. "He's big and athletic and he can move, so I just think he'll be able to help us out so much. With his strength already as a young freshman and just his ability on the field, he's going to be able to make plays."
The question for Taylor, the other candidates at his position and truthfully the entire rebuilding defense is how quickly the new key contributors can show consistency as SEC-level defenders.
Taylor said he realized the defense would be the Bulldogs' biggest area of uncertainty this fall, but added that he believes they will be ready by the time the Aug. 31 opener at Clemson arrives.
"We know that we've got a lot of great athletes leaving, but we also know we've got to take it upon ourselves to improve and get better each day so we can step up next year and we can fill our responsibility of what we've got to do," he said.
"I think it's really a pride thing. It's like every kid's dream to come to the University of Georgia and play for the Bulldogs and hopefully get to the league one day. So I'm proud to be here."