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ATHENS, Ga. -- Ryne Rankin has been planning to early enroll as a college football player since eighth grade. But the linebacker prospect plans to get an even bigger jump on his future Georgia teammates who plan to begin college in January.
Rankin traveled to Athens on Thursday with plans of participating in the on-campus practices with the Bulldogs as they prepare for a Jan. 1 date with Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl.
“Basically they said you can come to the bowl practices if you would like to,” Rankin said Thursday afternoon. “And I thought it would just be better for me to get up there and get acclimated, maybe bring some of my stuff up, meet some people and just get to know the system before everybody else gets there in January.”
The four-star inside linebacker from Orlando, Fla. -- whom ESPN rates as the nation’s No. 13 ILB in the 2013 class -- is the lone prospect that Georgia’s coaching staff expected to join the team for bowl practice. Most top-tier prospects prefer to participate in a postseason all-star game in December or January, which prevents them from joining their future college team for bowl practice, but Rankin skipped that opportunity.
“I had a chance to go play in All-American bowls and stuff like that, but I just thought that’s not really going to help me in college,” he said, “so I wanted to go get ready to get after college and stuff like that and start my college career.”
As one of four committed players at his position, Rankin preferred to take advantage of every opportunity to work toward playing time next fall. Of Georgia’s four regulars at inside linebacker, Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard are seniors and junior Alec Ogletree is projected as a first-round NFL draft pick should he enter the NFL draft pool after the season.
That could leave sophomore Amarlo Herrera as the only inside linebacker with significant game experience -- meaning Rankin and fellow UGA commitments Johnny O’Neal (No. 5 ILB), Tim Kimbrough (No. 11) and Reginald Carter (No. 32, who is also planning to enroll in January) could have an opportunity to earn playing time as freshmen.
“It’ll put him up a little bit above all the rest of the young guys that’s coming in,” Herrera said of the advantage for Rankin in participating in bowl practices. “But he’s got to take it serious and take it upon himself to learn everything and I’ll be trying to coach him up.”
Rankin -- who said he made only two Bs in his entire high school academic career -- is a coach’s son who expects to learn under Herrera how to play “mike” linebacker in Georgia’s defensive scheme, essentially serving as the quarterback of the defense. And Gilliard said he will have a good teacher in Herrera, who started in just his second college game.
“Definitely there’s going to be a lot of guys coming in, but I feel like as a returning guy, Amarlo, he’ll set them straight and get those guys ready to play,” Gilliard said.
This is an opportunity that Rankin has literally been preparing for since middle school. He took a high school-level geometry class in eighth grade and skipped out on electives in order to knock out his core-class requirements so efficiently that he was a half-credit away from graduation by the end of his junior year of high school.
Instead of taking traditional high school classes this fall, Rankin took part in a “dual enrollment” program at a local community college that enabled him to begin accumulating college credit hours before enrolling at UGA.
“I said, ‘[The heck with] it, my senior year I’ll go to a community college and knock out some college classes so I can even have a better jump on everybody else when I get to college.’ ”
The high-motor linebacker totaled 176 tackles as a senior at Orlando’s East River High School and 575 throughout his career as a four-year starter. He was preparing to participate in a farewell ceremony at his school Thursday afternoon before traveling to Athens, admitting it was a pleasant distraction that kept nerves from setting in yet.
“I’m just trying to enjoy the time I’ve got with my family and friends right now and then after this, heading up there,” Rankin said. “So we’ll see. When I get up there, I’ll probably be a little nervous, but as of right now, not yet.”
The time for nerves is Friday, when Rankin expected to suit up with established college players such as Jarvis Jones, Ogletree and the assortment of future pros who dot the Bulldogs’ defense. But it’s also a prime learning opportunity that Rankin and his future teammates believe will be extremely helpful.
“It’ll definitely get him ready for what spring will be like,” freshman outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “He’s going to be ready to know what to expect when the season comes. That first little bit, I remember the first five or 10 days, you really needed that because I remember I got in and the first little four reps I got in for at practice, it really drained me a little bit.
“That’ll be good for him to get ready to adjust to the speed and just being able to play with the high-caliber athletes that college entails.”