- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Aside from tailback Isaiah Crowell, no player in Georgia’s heralded 2011 recruiting class arrived with more hype than defensive end Ray Drew. And yet the rising junior struggled to make much of an impact in his first two seasons as a Bulldog.
But after working his way into the defensive line rotation late last season and acquitting himself well -- including an eight-tackle game against Georgia Tech, a single-game total that tied for second among Georgia’s defensive linemen last season -- Drew entered this spring with a newfound confidence that he can perform at the college level.
“The more you play, the more comfortable you get,” Drew said. “And then after I had my game against Georgia Tech where I think I had about eight or nine tackles there, I guess it kind of just freed me and it was kind of like, ‘OK, let’s go.’ ”
To that point, it was reasonable to begin wondering whether Drew would ever live up to his billing as a recruit. ESPN listed Drew and Crowell as five-star prospects in 2011, and Drew was the No. 13 player on the ESPN 150 and No. 2 defensive end behind only South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney. But while Clowney shot to immediate stardom, Drew struggled to grasp Georgia’s defensive scheme and still needed to develop the mean streak necessary to become a dominant SEC player.
There was a brief flash of promise in 2011 when he earned SEC Co-Freshman of the Week honors after Georgia’s narrow win at Vanderbilt. But midway through last season Drew was barely playing on a thin defensive line that needed him to contribute. He went four games without recording a single tackle before he slowly started to earn then-defensive line coach Rodney Garner’s trust.
He had a four-tackle game against Georgia Southern, made eight stops against Georgia Tech and then had three tackles and a tackle for a loss in the Capital One Bowl win against Nebraska. That might not show dominance, but it does represent progress -- a process that Drew expects to continue this season now that he better understands his role in Georgia’s defense.
“Compared to my freshman year where I was just getting into the playbook, just learning it, this year I have a much better understanding of it,” said the 280-pound Drew.
Drew juggled outside linebacker and defensive end duties in his first two seasons, which defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said will still happen this fall, although Drew said he has been practicing exclusively at defensive end lately.
Grantham lamented not having enough linemen available in 2011 where Drew could have redshirted as a freshman and entered this season with three more years of eligibility remaining. But the Bulldogs’ fourth-year defensive coordinator said he expects this to be a big spring for a talented player who he believes is ready to blossom.
“He’s a guy that has really I think shown up in our offseason workouts as a man, meaning I see his size, I see his explosiveness,” Grantham said.
Drew is still looking to make his first college start and record his first solo sack, and those milestones very well might come this fall if his progress continues along Georgia’s rebuilding defensive line. Abry Jones, John Jenkins and Cornelius Washington -- all 2012 seniors who contributed at defensive end -- are now pursuing careers in the NFL. Starter Garrison Smith remains, but returning players such as Drew and Sterling Bailey have the opportunity to win some playing time with strong springs.
Drew hasn’t won anything yet, but Grantham said that could change soon.
“He’s a guy that’s excited to show that he can be a significant player in the SEC,” Grantham said. “I think he can, and I’m looking forward to watching him play.”