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Plugging up the middle

ATHENS, Ga. -- Chris Mayes and John Atkins fully understand the opportunity that awaits them this spring and preseason. That's why they're already on campus at Georgia.

Mayes, a junior college transfer who initially signed with the Bulldogs in 2011, and Atkins, a 2012 signee who spent last fall at Hargrave (Va.) Military, hope to fill the massive void left by the departure of nose guards John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers after the 2012 season. They enrolled last month with the intention of contributing immediately this fall.

"There's a void," admitted new defensive line coach Chris Wilson, who joined Mark Richt's coaching staff this offseason after serving as defensive coordinator at Mississippi State. "When you look at that, and what it does is it gives a lot of guys what they've been looking for when they came to Georgia: a great opportunity.

"I don't know if you can replace that much production with just one guy, so we've really got to develop some depth. We've got to have two, three guys that can really maintain and play anywhere from 20-25 snaps a game to really help you."

That's the idea for Mayes (6-foot-4, 340 pounds) and Atkins (6-3, 323), who turned Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's head as much with their surprising athleticism as with the imposing size that is essentially a requirement to play their position.

After all, if a nose guard is playing his role properly in Grantham's 3-4 base scheme, he is not simply going to take on a single blocker. Most often, he will need to battle both the center and a guard in order to clog a gap and allow a teammate to make tackles.

"People don't realize you're probably the first person to get hit, because after the snap, the center and the guard, they get you first," said Mayes, who redshirted last season at Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College and has three years of eligibility remaining. "You're first contact, so it's a tough position, but somebody's got to do it."

Grantham frequently points out that both players are athletic enough to contribute at either nose or defensive end. Mayes seems confident that nose will be his landing spot, but Atkins said he played both at Hargrave and could play either at UGA.

Regardless of where they play, the fact that they're already on campus will be invaluable as they attempt to crack Wilson's rotation.

"I think that with [Mayes] and John Atkins both here, that kind of gives them an extra year from the standpoint that they get to go through spring practice and really help us with our depth up front, which is what we need," Grantham said.

Atkins laughed and said it was a "real long" fall because of the headaches involved with adapting to Hargrave's regimented schedule. Now that he's at Georgia, however, he believes he benefited from the structure at the prep school.

And since he likely would have redshirted last fall with seniors Jenkins, Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington and fourth-year junior Geathers playing the majority of the snaps on the defensive line, he also got to work on his game for another fall without sacrificing a year of eligibility.

"I was thankful to play at Hargrave, because it would have been a redshirt year, and I still have four years of eligibility after I went to Hargrave, so it's a good change," Atkins said.

Geathers skipping his final season of eligibility to enter the NFL draft created an even greater opportunity for Mayes and Atkins to play -- and they recognize that, although Mayes said it also would have been beneficial to learn from a veteran such as Geathers.

"You always like to get an opportunity, but I think it would have helped more just depth-wise," Mayes said. "I would love playing with him, because he took on two or three blockers, and I want to see how he did that. I could have learned a lot from him."

Instead, he will compete with redshirt freshman Jonathan Taylor and rising junior Mike Thornton -- and perhaps Atkins -- at nose. But opportunities will be present across the line, as Wilson looks to develop a deeper rotation than predecessor Rodney Garner used last fall.

"I want to play anywhere from six to eight guys in a game," Wilson said. "That's the only way I believe you get better. You get better by practicing, but you get even better by competing in SEC football games. And so what I like to do, as well as what Coach Grantham's done in the past and looking at his vision for the defense, is you want guys who really create disadvantages for the offense."