ATHENS, Ga. -- Ray Drew doesn't like to use the word “doubt” when asked whether his belief that he could become Georgia's team leader in sacks, like he is today, ever wavered. But if there is a leading reason for the philosophical approach the former five-star prospect has taken toward his football career, it's the lack of instant results that marked his first two seasons in college.
“I wouldn't say doubt is the word, but I believe that everyone coming into college, unless you just come in and you're a freshman All-American and you're playing every snap from the time you get here until the time you leave, I believe that there is a wall that every player hits that they'll ask the question, 'Well did I make the right decision?' or maybe 'Am I as good as I thought I was?' or maybe 'I should have done something else,' ” Drew said after Tuesday's practice.
“I believe that just comes with the college experience. I don't think that you can avoid it no matter where you're at or what position you play or who you are. It just happens.”
After juggling outside linebacker and defensive end responsibilities in his first season and struggling to adapt to his role on the defensive line for much of his sophomore campaign, Drew is finally starting to touch the potential that ESPN talent evaluators saw in naming him as the nation's No. 13 overall prospect and No. 2 defensive end in the 2011 signing class.
He notched two sacks in each of the Bulldogs' last two games, against Tennessee and Missouri, after logging his first quarterback takedown since 2011 in the Bulldogs' win over LSU. The junior now leads the team in both tackles for a loss (six) and sacks (five) and registered a season-high seven tackles against Missouri.
“He's made a big difference,” said linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who was a member of Drew's 2011 signing class. “He's getting a lot of sacks and he's becoming the D-lineman that everybody knew he could be.”
That's a credit to Drew's perseverance, as it wasn't long ago that it was reasonable to wonder whether he might never live up to his billing.
The only defensive end rated higher in that class was South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney. But while Clowney was an instant hit with the Gamecocks and became an obvious NFL prospect early in his career, Drew's learning curve was much steeper. The comparison to Clowney and other elite prospects who were contributing earlier in their careers didn't help Drew's confidence either.
“Let's be honest, it kind of messes with you when you're a five-star recruit and you get all this attention and love from the media and public about how good you are, and then all of a sudden you come to college and you're nothing no more,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said.
“You've got to build yourself all the way back up and you're not playing on that level that you want to play on, and then you've got the guy right in front of you playing like he's in the NFL already, Jadeveon Clowney. So that would mess with anybody's self-esteem.
“But that's why it's like a marathon. It's not about how you start, it's how you finish and he's getting better and better, and that's what it's all about.”
Drew is certainly on pace for a strong finish. He has started four of the last five games after failing to start once in his first two seasons. And his 22 tackles this season have nearly matched his career total (31) prior to this season.
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Tuesday that Drew is “becoming a little bit of a force” and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham added that “finally the light clicked on and now he's playing the way we felt he could play.”
Not that every Bulldog is necessarily happy about Drew's status as the team's sack leader.
“We can't let Ray lead us in sacks,” laughed outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins. “We gave them sacks away because we're coming off the edge and he steps up right into Ray's hands. But I can't discredit Ray. He definitely came a long way and he's always a fighter, he understands the plays and he understands what to do and he's just balling out there. But we can't let him have the lead by the end of the season.”
With only one sack to his credit so far, Jenkins has a lot of sacking to do if he is to catch up to Drew.
That might come as a surprise to most who follow Georgia's program -- and maybe to Drew himself -- but Drew said before the season that he planned to stop putting so much pressure on himself. That approach seems to be paying off.
“I would say that [my first two seasons were] helpful,” Drew said. “They've been informative -- helped me learn more about myself as a player and they've helped me growing not only as a football player, but as a person, as well, because up to this time in the football world, I really hadn't had to face any adversity. So now being in the position that I am, I think it made me a stronger person.”