- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia has rotated defensive players much more extensively this season than in the recent past -- at most positions, anyway. One that stands as an exception is inside linebacker, where Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson played every defensive snap against South Carolina and all but a couple of plays in the opener against Clemson.
While Herrera and Wilson were the SEC's top two tacklers at the end of Week 2, Georgia's coaches recognize for a variety of reasons that filtering in some other players -- even for just a few plays here and there -- will be healthy.
“The quality of the play I think is fine,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I'd just like to see us be able to give them a little bit of a rest and not take every snap. The other thing you do is you build a little bit of depth if you get some other guys in the game in case, God forbid, a guy got hurt and then you throw a guy in there who really hasn't had any snaps.
“So the goal, really, is just like everywhere else up front, everywhere else that we're subbing, is to keep guys fresher in the second half, fresher at the end of a game, at the end of a season.”
The problem with that proposition to this point is that the alternatives were all true freshmen. With top-10 teams on the opposite sideline in the first two games, the Bulldogs needed to minimize their risks as much as possible, and that meant relying heavily on the two junior linebackers.
They prepared for that likelihood in the offseason -- Herrera mentioned that as one of the reasons that he got himself in better shape and dropped weight since last season ended -- and believe it has helped them hold up through the grind of more than 130 defensive plays spread over two games.
“You're going to see 51 and 52 around the ball on every tackle. We're just bringing energy out there and trying to make a statement, trying to show these young guys how to play,” said Wilson, who has 22 tackles and a pass breakup thus far. “If you play fast, good things will happen. Like Amarlo, running to the ball made a fumble [against South Carolina's Connor Shaw]. And like me and them running to the ball on the goal-line stand. Just keep running and keep having effort and good things will happen.”
Nonetheless, Richt's point about keeping the veterans fresh is valid. The grind for Herrera and Wilson exists not only in games, but also in practices -- and defensive teammates realize that fatigue is a natural byproduct of that level of involvement.
Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said he has even worked to learn the defensive calls that the inside linebackers would typically relay simply to reduce some of the burden on Herrera and Wilson.
“They rarely ever get breaks. I always look back at Amarlo and Ramik and that's really why I tried to learn some of their calls, so it would be easier for them, because they get tired,” Jenkins said. “People on the other side they have to run over there and repeat the call and sometimes they're really tired and you don't really hear it. So I tried to learn the defense to help them out because some practices when we go long and scrimmage and stuff, they're dog tired. I feel like it gets them ready for the game, but it's really asking a lot of them.”
The answer, of course, is for some of the youngsters to prove that they can function in the Bulldogs' defensive scheme without a drop-off in production.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has repeatedly praised Reggie Carter and said Tim Kimbrough is improving to the point where he might play more scrimmage downs eventually. Saturday's nonconference game against North Texas could represent the first opportunity to truly evaluate without the risk of a missed assignment costing Georgia a victory.
Carter said he has prepared as if he would start all along, however.
“I look at it like when I go into a game, my game plan is as if I'm a starter,” Carter said. “I study the same amount of film. I try to have Coach [Kirk Olivadotti, Georgia's inside linebackers coach] get me ready as if I'm a starter.”
One thing that is clear is that Herrera now views himself as an every-down linebacker, although his reputation in his first two seasons was that he was a run-stopper who often left the field in passing situations.
“That's what people thought because I didn't get the chance to do it because they took me out,” said Herrera, who leads the team with 24 tackles and has 1.5 tackles for a loss. “But I can do it. I can do whatever I want to do. All you've got to do is just work hard and have a good work ethic.”
Grantham clearly agrees, noting last week that “He'll keep playing all the snaps.”
So at least for now, expect to see the veterans -- and Herrera in particular -- playing all of the important snaps at inside linebacker. As the season progresses, though, opportunities will certainly exist for the freshmen to steal some snaps once they prove they can perform as consistently as one of the veterans, if not better.
“I do see times with both of them where if a team gets a six-, seven-, eight-, nine-play drive, you can see them huffing and puffing pretty good. And you're going to get tired in a game after you're pursuing some quarterback on a scramble or whatever it is,” Richt said. “Cumulatively you can get run down in a game, you can get run down in a season, so I'm just hoping we can get a little bit more confidence in some guys to let them play.”
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