Georgia Bulldogs: Mike Thornton

We're closing in on the start of spring practice at Georgia, so this week we will take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

Yesterday we examined the competition at safety. Today let's move to the defensive line, which lost a starter in Garrison Smith, but should otherwise have plentiful depth and experience:

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRay Drew will be among those tasked with getting a better pass rush for Georgia in 2014.
Returning starters: A number of defensive linemen earned starts for the first times in their careers last fall. Defensive end Sterling Bailey (34 tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss) started the first eight games and came off the bench for the remaining five. Position mate Ray Drew (43 tackles, six sacks, eight TFLs) started seven times, but never started more than two games in a row at any point. And noseguard Chris Mayes (31 tackles, one sack, one TFL) started to come into his own during his streak of seven straight starts to conclude the season.

Departures: Smith (63 tackles, six sacks, 10 TFLs) started all 13 games last season and was one of the emotional leaders on the defense, earning defensive team captain honors after the season.

Returning reserves: John Taylor (nine tackles, one sack, 1.5 TFLs) and Toby Johnson (seven tackles, 1.5 TFLs) are probably the first names to mention here. Both players appeared in 10 games off the bench in 2013 and should compete for extended playing time this fall. Taylor was a redshirt freshman and still looked a bit green last season, while Johnson was only nine months removed from a season-ending ACL tear when the Bulldogs opened preseason camp a year ago. Josh Dawson (eight tackles, one TFL) appeared in 12 games and started once at end and Mike Thornton (five tackles, one sack, one TFL) appeared in 11 games. Smith mentioned Thornton as a player who might fill a larger role in the Bulldogs' retooled 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Newcomers: Redshirt freshman John Atkins is among the more intriguing players who will enter the mix this spring. He's big and quick enough to play any position along the line, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see him figure into the line rotation early next season. Noseguard DeAndre Johnson is also coming off a redshirt, but he faces steep competition in the middle this spring. The Bulldogs also signed defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard -- ESPN's No. 55 overall prospect and No. 4 DT -- and ESPN 300 defensive end Keyon Brown, but neither player is on campus yet.

What to watch: The line came into 2013 with limited experience, but ranked among the pleasant surprises for a defense that disappointed overall. The Bulldogs defended the run fairly well -- Georgia's average of 3.7 yards allowed per carry ranked second in the SEC -- thanks in large part to typically stout play by the line. With six sacks apiece, Drew and Smith both ranked among the SEC's top pass-rushers, but the group generally struggled to generate a consistent pass rush or convert sack opportunities. Identifying strong rush men will likely rank among new line coach Tracy Rocker's goals for the spring, as will simply teaching his new players how he wants things done. This will be the third line coach in as many seasons for the Bulldogs, so the group has certainly become accustomed to change. It will be a big spring for all of the linemen since Rocker brings a fresh set of eyes to the table, without having formed an opinion based on their performances in previous seasons. It might provide a chance for someone like Johnson -- we recently discussed his situation here -- Taylor or Atkins to grab a bigger role than he previously enjoyed.

UGA D-line seeks more consistency

September, 6, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Like most of Georgia's defense, the Bulldogs' line had its moments of competence -- and even solid play -- in last Saturday's season-opening loss at Clemson.

The problem across the board was that there weren't enough of those moments, and the line knows it must turn in a more consistent performance with South Carolina's physical rushing attack on tap Saturday.

“We didn't tackle that good in the last game, so we're just trying to come out and just get ready for South Carolina,” Georgia defensive end Toby Johnson said. “Them boys, they like to run the ball a lot, so obviously we've got to tackle.”

Led by tailback Mike Davis, who might have wound up at Georgia had Todd Gurley not committed to the Bulldogs first, South Carolina pounded North Carolina for 228 rushing yards and 6 yards per carry in last week's opener. Included in Davis' 115 rushing yards was a 75-yard touchdown run that cemented the Gamecocks' 27-10 victory.

“He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s tough,” Georgia nose guard Mike Thornton said of Davis, his former teammate at Atlanta's Stephenson High School. “He’s a tough runner.”

To contend with Davis' power running and South Carolina's NFL-sized offensive line, Georgia's defensive front also must be tougher following its uneven results in Week 1.

[+] EnlargeGarrison Smith
Joe Robbins/Getty ImagesGarrison Smith, a 6-foot-3, 299-pound senior, is now listed as Georgia's starting nose guard.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Clemson ran 36 times on designed runs inside the tackles for 158 yards (4.4 YPC) and a touchdown last Saturday. That number would look more impressive were it not for a 36-yard run by Rod McDowell in the fourth quarter to set up Clemson's final touchdown.

“We swarmed to the ball as a defense, especially our linebackers, but for the most part we missed a lot of big tackles,” Johnson said. “That goes with me, I missed a big sack. So we've just got to wrap up and keep our head up and keep your feet.”

Considering that it was the first college game for a couple of Georgia linemen and the first heavy dose of playing time for a couple more, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he actually came away feeling encouraged after watching film of the group's debut effort.

“I thought there was some good things. At times they were stout and did the things we had to do. We’re so young, we’ve got to continue to work on our techniques and our fundamentals to be consistent in our play,” Grantham said. “I walked away thinking that if we can build on this, we’ll be fine. And really I walked away as that for the whole unit from that standpoint after watching the tape.”

The Bulldogs practiced in full pads Tuesday and Wednesday in an effort to work more on shedding blocks and tackling. They also shuffled their depth chart, placing Garrison Smith as the starting nose guard and Sterling Bailey and Josh Dawson as the starting ends, although Grantham insisted that making a fuss over players' positional labels is “so overrated” in his scheme that shifts between a traditional 3-4 base defense and a nickel look that deploys four players along the line.

Nonetheless, Smith played in the interior of the line for much of the Clemson game and felt he performed well, even if his 299-pound frame is considerably smaller than Georgia's 2012 nose men, John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers.

“I ain’t the size of a double-wide trailer like John Jenkins and Kwame. I’m like a dually [truck] and they’re like an 18-wheeler ... a big Mack truck, Freightliners,” Smith said. “It’s a big difference between our sizes, but I just do it the best I can.”

It should help that new line coach Chris Wilson seems prepared to follow through on his plan to use more players up front. Thornton said the Clemson game was “was the most we’ve ever rotated since I’ve been here.”

And it made a difference in the players' energy levels, as Clemson's offensive play count built and the game reached its latter stages.

“It’s a noticeable difference when you know you’ve got somebody that can come in and play a couple snaps for you, and you don’t have to worry about getting so winded and getting so tired,” Smith said. “You can get a couple plays off and be able to go back in and be able to keep playing hard.”

Whoever is in the game along Georgia's line will have one main challenge come Saturday. South Carolina arrives each week planning to dominate the line of scrimmage, and the Bulldogs must play a tougher, more consistent brand of defense if they are to end a three-game losing streak against the Gamecocks.

“Something that’s going to pop up on the film whenever you look at it and just see how big and physical they are,” Dawson said. “You’ve just got to match them.”

Shaw will test UGA defensive discipline

September, 3, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps because of Georgia’s offensive ineptitude in its 35-7 loss last season to South Carolina, Gamecocks quarterback Connor Shaw’s impressive performance seemed to fly under the radar.

Look over Shaw’s run-pass line from that game -- 6-for-10 passing for 162 yards and two touchdowns, plus 78 rushing yards and another score -- and you won’t confuse him for dual-threat Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel.

[+] EnlargeConnor Shaw
Streeter Lecka/Getty ImagesGeorgia knows from painful experience just how dangerous Connor Shaw is running or passing.
But make no mistake, Shaw’s ability to make things happen with his arm and legs played a major role in South Carolina jumping to a 21-0 lead by the end of the first quarter. Containing the shifty quarterback will be a major order of business for the Bulldogs in Saturday’s rematch.

“Most of the time when you have a quarterback like that, you might see an opening just to go inside on a tackle or something like that and he just slips outside and that’s when the big plays happen,” Georgia defensive end Josh Dawson said. “So staying to your keys and being fundamental, that’s going to be the biggest thing of containing a quarterback like that. Just try to apply as much pressure as you can. I feel like if we can do that, we can have a chance.”

A season ago, though, Georgia had difficulty with the fundamental aspects of defending him.

On the second play of the game, Shaw launched a jump ball that receiver Damiere Byrd snatched away from Bulldogs safety Bacarri Rambo for a 42-yard gain. Three plays later, Shaw hit a wide-open Bruce Ellington with a 20-yard touchdown pass, and the Gamecocks were up 7-0.

Shortly after Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray was intercepted on the ensuing drive, South Carolina was on the move again, going 69 yards in 11 plays and scoring on a 14-yard pass from Shaw to Rory Anderson.

In just those two drives, Shaw went 5-for-6 for 100 yards and two scores, and he ran twice for 17 more yards. With a defense as good as South Carolina’s, Shaw’s early efficiency had a devastating impact on Georgia’s chances.

“Connor Shaw is a very difficult quarterback to manage in how he runs the football, and he threw the ball extremely well,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said.

Although Georgia’s defense did not exactly hem in Clemson's Tajh Boyd last weekend, who totaled five touchdowns in a 38-35 victory, the Bulldogs believe there was some value in facing one of the nation’s top dual-threat quarterbacks before facing Shaw in their conference opener Saturday.

“You tend to figure out what running quarterbacks’ tendencies [are],” Georgia outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said. “Like if they don’t see something open, they’ll tuck it and run it just about every time. So it’s really like practice leading up to playing South Carolina’s quarterback.”

Their teams’ offensive philosophies -- South Carolina’s grinding offense is built around physicality, including the running style of its hard-nosed quarterback, while Clemson’s wide-open scheme attempts to get its large group of talented skill players into open space, with big plays a regular possibility -- are extremely different, and so are their quarterbacks.

That makes a comparison between Georgia’s strategy against Boyd versus its strategy against Shaw somewhat invalid, defensive lineman Mike Thornton said.

“I don’t think it’s worth comparing those two because they’re two totally different teams with I feel like two different philosophies as far as running the ball and having an outside passing attack,” Thornton said. “So I wouldn’t compare the two, but we definitely have to get after Connor Shaw.”

That much is certain. Georgia learned that lesson the hard way a season ago.

Their rocky 2013 debut reminded the Bulldogs of the importance of playing their assignments properly on defense, and they will be tested in that area again Saturday.

“[We have keep staying] to our keys and just knowing what can happen when you get out of your gaps and whatnot,” Dawson said. “Playing Boyd was an eye-opener and it was something we needed early in the season. Coming into the South Carolina game, you have Connor Shaw, who does the same thing, so it’s something that’s going to help us this week.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Week two of Spring camp had the Georgia Bulldogs hitting the practice field in full pads while preparing for a scrimmage on Saturday. Position battles and projected performances dominated the questions we received for this edition of the DawgNation Mailbag.

Adam (Charlotte): What is your view on the post-Aaron Murray quarterback position battle? Brice Ramsey comes out very highly recruited but played in a pure running team and didn't really showcase his talents. Could the big bad SEC be too much for him?

Position scouting report: Nose guard 

December, 20, 2012
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Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, we’ll take a look at each position on Georgia’s depth chart and project how it might look in the future. Today we examine Georgia’s nose guards:

* Two-deep depth chart: John Jenkins (Sr.), Kwame Geathers (Jr.)

* Who’s ready to move up for more playing time?: This won’t be as pressing of a need if Geathers decides to return for his senior season. If he does not, redshirt freshman Jonathan Taylor and sophomore Michael Thornton would be the next two nose guards on the roster to watch.

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Dawgs Snapshot 2013: John Atkins 

December, 18, 2012
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To gear up for 2013 national signing day, DawgNation's Radi Nabulsi is breaking down every commitment in the Bulldogs' 2013 recruiting class.

Vitals: Defensive end John Atkins, Thomson, Ga./Hargrave Military | 6-foot-3, 321 pounds

Committed: September 2, 2011

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Position scouting report: Defensive end 

December, 18, 2012
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Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, we’ll take a look at each position on Georgia’s depth chart today and projecting how it might look in the future. Today we examine Georgia’s defensive ends:

Current two-deep depth chart:
Garrison Smith (Jr.), John Jenkins (Sr.)
Cornelius Washington (Sr.), Ray Drew (So.)

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Richt pegs DL Smith to add pressure 

October, 17, 2012
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Garrison SmithJoe Robbins/Getty ImagesGarrison Smith has been a key cog in Georgia's defensive line since a big performance last season against Georgia Tech.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia coach Mark Richt immediately singled out one player last week when asked whom he envisioned playing a larger role in the second half of the season.

After watching Garrison Smith play an increasingly effective role in the Bulldogs’ defensive line rotation, Richt said he expects the junior defensive end to continue his emergence as the season progresses.

“Garrison has been playing, but I think he should play more snaps,” Richt said. “For two reasons: One, to help other guys get a little bit of a rest, and that he has been productive when he’s been in there, so you feel like he probably should get a little more of a rotation than he’s getting right now.”

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UGA midseason report card: DL 

October, 12, 2012
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Editor’s note: Georgia’s football season is at the halfway mark, and the Bulldogs will take this weekend off before resuming SEC play next Saturday at Kentucky. We'll take a look at a different position group each day this week and evaluate how it performed in the first half of the season in our DawgNation midseason report cards.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Viewed in the preseason as one of the team’s biggest strengths, Georgia’s defensive line was something of a disappointment in the first half of the season.

The seven regulars have sometimes failed to control the line of scrimmage and have not provided the improved pass rush that many expected when Cornelius Washington and Ray Drew shifted from outside linebacker to defensive end -- at least part time -- in the offseason. The entire group has accounted for just seven tackles for a loss and half a sack in the first six games of the season.

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