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Friday, January 11, 2013
Rising stars: Five to watch on D

By David Ching

ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt said Thursday that he wants his up-and-coming defensive players to ask themselves, “Am I going to be good enough to help this team win a championship?” as they work toward playing bigger roles in 2013.

There’s no question that if the Bulldogs return to the SEC championship game for a third consecutive year, those defensive players will have made enormous strides to get them there. They return every key offensive player except receivers Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, but lose 12 important defenders.

So let’s take a quick look at five key players who will lead the rebuilding effort for Georgia’s defense this fall -- and then three more to watch for good measure.

Jordan Jenkins (Fr./OLB)
2012 stats: 31 tackles, 5 sacks, 8 TFL, 1 FF, 1 FR

To date: Jenkins arrived with the billing that he could be the next Jarvis Jones and quickly showed why recruiting analysts were so high on his skills. He ranked second on the team with five sacks and 22 quarterback hurries and third with eight tackles for a loss. He also was involved in two key fourth-quarter takeaways that helped Georgia secure victories -- a fumble recovery deep in Missouri territory and a forced fumble near midfield against Tennessee.

What next? Jenkins is already talking about breaking Jones’ UGA sack record (14.5) -- and Jones believes his “little brother” has the skills to surpass his recently-set mark. The freshman seems to be Georgia’s next pass-rushing superstar, and even ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper has taken notice. In October, Kiper ranked Jenkins as his No. 3 defensive underclassman in college football behind only South Carolina’s Jadeveon Clowney and Notre Dame’s Stephon Tuitt.

Amarlo Herrera (So./ILB)
2012 stats: 70 tackles, 3 TFL, 1 INT (TD), 1 FF, 1 FR

To date: Herrera started his second college game and has been a regular in Georgia’s inside linebacker rotation ever since with 17 starts in his first two seasons. He played a big role in the first half of the 2012 season -- particularly while Alec Ogletree served a four-game suspension to open the season -- compiling 47 tackles in the first six games. His role reduced a bit in the second half of the season.

What next? As the only remaining member of what was essentially a four-man rotation at inside linebacker -- Ogletree entered the NFL draft after a standout junior season, while Michael Gilliard and Christian Robinson exhausted their eligibility -- Herrera will play alongside an extremely young group of ILBs next season. The Bulldogs are preparing to sign at least four ILBs, so Herrera won’t be the youngster in the group anymore. He’ll have to set the tone.

Garrison Smith (Jr./DE)
2012 stats: 57 tackles, 1 sack, 2 TFL, 1 FR

To date: Smith worked his way into a regular spot in the starting lineup when Abry Jones suffered a season-ending ankle injury at midseason and made the most of his opportunity. He led Georgia’s defensive linemen with 57 tackles while playing alongside a host of seniors on the line.

What next? Smith will be far and away the most experienced defensive lineman next season after Jones, John Jenkins, Cornelius Washington and Kwame Geathers have all left to pursue careers in the NFL. He was a steady performer in his first season as a starter and the Bulldogs need him to take another step forward in his final season as opposing offenses might be able to focus more of their blocking efforts on him in 2013.

Damian Swann (So./CB)
2012 stats: 53 tackles, 2 sacks, 3.5 TFL, 4 INT, 2 FF, 2 FR

To date: The sophomore cornerback enjoyed a solid first season as a starter, leading the team with four interceptions, tying for the team lead with two fumble recoveries and ranking third with two forced fumbles. He got burned a time or two -- none more painful than when he allowed Alabama’s Amari Cooper to get behind him for the game-winning touchdown pass -- but he had a hand in numerous big plays, as well.

What next? Swann seems to be on track for stardom in the secondary after showing off his playmaking skills as a rookie starter. Like Jenkins, Herrera and Smith, however, he won’t have the experienced veterans at his position to rely on anymore. Without Sanders Commings and Branden Smith at cornerback, Swann in 2013 will become the veteran who must stabilize the position.

Ray Drew (So./DE)
2012 stats: 23 tackles, 1 TFL

To date: Drew was one of the highest-rated prospects in Georgia’s 2011 signing class, but he has been mostly quiet in his first two seasons on campus. He played outside linebacker as a freshman before adding weight as a sophomore and shifting to defensive end. Drew began to pick things up in the second half of the 2012 season and played a more active role in the defensive line rotation, registering 18 of his 23 tackles in the final five games of the season.

What next? If Drew is going to live up to his five-star billing as a prospect, the timing is good for him to move in that direction. He has found a home at his current position and has developed a better understanding of what to do. Plus there is plenty of playing time available. If Drew isn’t playing a major role in the defensive line rotation next fall, he will have allowed a major opportunity to bypass him.

Three to watch: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson and Jonathan Taylor.

The guys we’ve listed mostly seem like sure bets to play big roles in Georgia’s 2013 defense. We believe that while 2012 signees Harvey-Clemons, Dawson and Taylor haven’t done much so far, they are on the verge of big things, as well.

It remains unclear whether Harvey-Clemons will stay at safety or play linebacker this fall. But he’s going to contribute somewhere. Mark it down. Dawson also contributed mostly on special teams this fall, but Georgia has a great deal of playing time available at cornerback and his dynamic athleticism makes him a prime candidate to enter the secondary rotation.

And with Jenkins and Geathers both gone, Georgia’s returning players have little experience at nose guard. Enter Taylor, who redshirted in 2012 and will compete with early enrollees John Atkins and Chris Mayes and returning player Michael Thornton this offseason to play a leading role at nose in the fall.