Georgia Bulldogs: Tim Kimbrough
We begin today with the first installment in a series where we examine five position groups with room to improve. Today's first group is Georgia's inside linebackers.
5. Inside linebackers
Strength in numbers: This will be an interesting group to watch this spring as the depth chart continues to evolve behind the seniors. Georgia signed a big group of inside linebackers last season, but their contributions were largely limited to special teams. Reggie Carter (one start, eight tackles, 0.5 tackles for a loss) made the biggest splash early before undergoing knee surgery, which knocked him out of the lineup for the last five games of the regular season. The other freshmen who played -- Tim Kimbrough (11 games, five tackles, one TFL), Johnny O'Neal (eight games, four tackles) and Ryne Rankin (seven games, five tackles) -- and special teams ace Kosta Vavlas (13 games, 11 tackles) barely made an impact on scrimmage downs. With a new position coach, Mike Ekeler, joining the staff to work with this group, spring will be a valuable time for Ekeler to familiarize himself with his players and begin determining who is equipped to play a bigger role in the fall.
New on the scene: After signing four inside linebackers last year -- plus a safety in Paris Bostick who converted to the position last year -- ILB wasn't a terribly high priority in this recruiting cycle. Bostick is coming off a redshirt season and will add to the depth this season, plus the Bulldogs' only inside linebacker signee, Detric Dukes, should join the team over the summer. It wouldn't be a big surprise to see Dukes redshirt in the fall. Georgia's departed coaches liked what Bostick brought to the table at his new position, so he might be a player to watch in the future.
With that in mind, let's look at five Georgia players (or groups) who need to have strong springs and summers -- once the Bulldogs move past their upcoming bowl matchup, of course -- to become useful players next season.
Brandon Kublanow: With three offensive line positions open after the season ends, we could go several directions here. But let's stick to guard, where starters Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee will both be gone after this season. Kublanow was impressive enough after arriving on campus this summer that he won some playing time as a true freshman. It would not be at all surprising to see him grab a starting job next season if he has a strong spring and summer. He's a grinder, and he's going to become a solid offensive lineman at the college level.
The ILBs: Most likely, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson will be back for their senior seasons in 2014. But it's not a particularly good thing that they essentially played every meaningful down this fall. The Bulldogs need the freshmen who played sparingly -- Reggie Carter, Tim Kimbrough, Johnny O'Neal and Ryne Rankin -- to make a bigger impact next season. Carter is the most obvious choice for more playing time, but Georgia needs to develop more of the talent on the roster in order to be prepared for Wilson and Herrera's departure after next season. To this point, he's the only non-starter at ILB who has played an important down.
A.J. Turman: After redshirting as a freshman, Turman is in an awkward position as 2014 approaches. Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall are established stars. Brendan Douglas and J.J. Green were productive this fall while playing as true freshmen. Now verbal commits Nick Chubb and Sony Michel are on board to join the team before next season. Turman has some running skills, but he'd better do something to make himself stand out -- soon … like this winter and spring -- or he'll place himself in jeopardy of getting lost in the shuffle.
Jordan Davis: Another 2013 redshirt, Davis has the opportunity to garner major playing time next fall. Arthur Lynch and Hugh Williams will be gone and only Jay Rome will remain among the Bulldogs' 2013 regulars at tight end. Davis should be able to carve out a role -- and he could do himself a favor if he does so before highly-touted verbal commit Jeb Blazevich can establish himself. Davis is a diligent worker and should eventually become a serviceable traditional tight end, whereas Blazevich looks more like a player whose greatest strength will be his receiving skills. The Bulldogs need both skill sets to be present among players at the position.
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.
“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.”
But before Georgia's coaching staff can help its reserves gain some on-field seasoning, the starters must first take control against a resilient Mean Green (2-1) club that outscored Ball State 31-7 after the first quarter on Saturday to win, 34-27.
“Just this past weekend, you saw Michigan playing Akron, and I don't know what their mindset was going into the game, but I know what it was, I'm sure, when the game was over,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said, referring to Saturday's game in Ann Arbor, where the Wolverines needed a last-minute goal-line stand to defeat Akron, 28-24. “I think everybody's just got to understand that we must focus very, very hard on improving, but we need to focus very hard on our game plan.”
Nonetheless, as long as Georgia's starters take care of business against the Mean Green, there should be more than enough playing time to go around for backups and those returning from injury to get some work in a game.
Repeat -- as long as they take care of business.
“We'll play the game as it happens,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said of the prospect of playing Mason, the backup quarterback and potential 2014 starter. “Coach has never been one and I've never been one to say, 'Hey, you're playing this series, that series.' We're going to go out there with all our bullets, so to speak, and play the game and take it from there.”
Against North Texas -- a team that ranks 94th nationally in total defense, allowing 435.7 yards per game -- the opportunity should arise to filter in some of the players who rarely saw the field in the first two games against Clemson and South Carolina.
That might include freshman tight end Jordan Davis or offensive lineman Brandon Kublanow, neither of whom has played to this point. Or more of fellow freshmen like Carter, Tim Kimbrough, Ryne Rankin, Quincy Mauger and Shaq Wiggins, who have contributed mostly on special teams.
“I would think anybody that's going to play has been on special teams and you've kind of seen them in there doing something,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Guys that maybe haven't done anything, I think right now the plan would be not to play those guys. Now obviously injuries or something could change that, but if I was looking to give you a barometer on the guys to expect moving forward, it would be guys that are playing on special teams right now.”
Grantham's prediction doesn't include someone like Rumph, the junior college transfer who missed the first two games and a chunk of preseason practice with a hamstring injury. Richt said last week that the wide receiver was healthy again and should be available against North Texas if he sufficiently knocks off the rust this week in practice.
“I don't know if he'll get in as a rotation from the very beginning or it will be contingent on how the game goes,” Richt said. “I'm not sure exactly where he's at, but he'll be available to play. He was getting a lot of work on special teams. Coaches are trying to incorporate him back into that. If he wasn't injured, I think he'd have been playing by now, scrimmage snaps and special teams snaps.”
Preseason injuries also affected defensive lineman Chris Mayes and defensive backs Shaquille Fluker and Kennar Johnson – all junior college transfers, as well – so some combination of that trio could also figure into the coaches' plans at some point.
Otherwise, it could be the freshmen and reserves who take over in the second half so long as Georgia's starters build a big early lead. And that could be valuable at positions like receiver, tailback and inside linebacker where the Bulldogs could stand to develop some of the younger players who aren't at the top of the depth chart.
“Like I said at the beginning of the year, it was a concern of mine, the depth at tailback,” Bobo said, although such a comment could apply at several positions. “It was good to get Brendan Douglas in [against South Carolina] and J.J. Green got a carry. He got a carry, got in last week.
“So we've got to continue to develop that depth if injuries do happen. It's a rough and tough league. We played two very good opponents in the first two weeks and guys played a lot of snaps and hopefully we'll get healed up and be ready to go.”
“Shoot, I’ve still got two weeks, right?” Georgia’s inside linebackers coach said, breaking into a grin before elaborating on his initial reply.
Those two weeks have trickled down to just more than one until the Bulldogs open the season at Clemson on Aug. 31. The coaches’ plan for the freshmen is starting to come into focus, although the positional pecking order still seems to be juniors Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, freshman early enrollee Reggie Carter, followed by everyone else.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, however, suggested that all of the newcomers could play a role this season, and Wilson agreed that was a likely outcome.
“Everybody in our room’s going to have a role. Everybody,” said Wilson, who tied Jordan Jenkins for the team lead with four tackles in Wednesday’s final preseason scrimmage. “Just because everybody’s been working hard and competing and showing their talent.”
Carter made the most of his opportunity when he enrolled in January, impressing Olivadotti with his work ethic as well as his physical ability. But Carter said that summer enrollees Tim Kimbrough and Johnny O’Neal were also picking up Georgia’s defensive scheme quickly.
“I’m happy that I enrolled early because it helped me understand the defense more and [Ryne] Rankin did the same thing and it helped him learn the defense more. But the guys that just got here, they’re learning, too, and they’re actually doing a way better job than me and Rankin in the spring of picking up the scheme.”
Olivadotti complimented the newcomers, too, adding, “Nobody’s surprised in a negative way, which is a good thing. Everybody’s working, and they’re the people who we thought they were.”
Perhaps Georgia coach Mark Richt provided a glimpse into where things stood on Wednesday when he rattled off stats following the team scrimmage. He informed reporters that Carter tied with Herrera for second on the team with three tackles and later added that O’Neal had made a few impressive hits while playing with the scout team.
Kimbrough, meanwhile, has just returned from a right knee sprain that kept him out of a number of recent practices after making a positive impression early in camp.
Playing on the scout team during the scrimmage doesn’t mean much, however, since Georgia’s limited numbers at inside linebacker mean all or most of the freshmen could find a role on either scrimmage downs or on special teams. Grantham confirmed as much recently.
“Reggie’s a guy that’s really improved and I think he’s going to be helping us in there. I think Kimbrough’s a guy that was showing really good progress until he got hurt,” Grantham said. “I’ve been pleased with it. We’ve obviously got to get him back and continue to develop him. If he continues to improve the way that I’ve seen him, he can be ready to function in a game. Johnny has shown to be big and physical and stout and he has the qualities to be a physical linebacker.
“Linebackers to me are guys that are good special teams players and I think if you get your feet wet that way sometimes it helps you in your defensive play. So if those guys can help us, then we’re going to play them.”
Richt got exactly the conditions and energy level from the team that he was hoping for in Wednesday’s second scrimmage of the preseason -- a marked difference from the Bulldogs’ listless effort a week ago.
“I thought it would be a good idea to do it this week because I just wanted it to be a nice, cool night, I wanted everybody to be well-rested and I just wanted to see a lot of energy out there,” Richt said. “It was like night and day from the first scrimmage as far as just the energy level out there.”
Georgia’s coaches got what they expected from their starting units, as well, with those groups mostly having their way against the backups in traditional series and situational scenarios.
“When you scrimmage like this and you go ones versus twos, you hope that your No. 1 offense is going to have a pretty good go against your No. 2 defense and vice versa. And that’s about how it’s gone,” Richt said. “If your second offense was just thrashing your No. 1 defense, then you’ve got a really, really serious problem. But that’s not the case. I thought both No. 1 units played pretty good.”
Several of Richt’s assistant coaches said recently that they would begin narrowing the field of candidates for playing time after Wednesday’s scrimmage so that they would have defined roles when they hold their third and final scrimmage next Wednesday. Richt said the coaches would grade film of the scrimmage within the next 24 hours, but their personnel decisions will likely take at least a few days.
“It’ll be maybe a day or two before we start trying to figure out ... and it won’t be exact until probably next Wednesday,” Richt said. “I would think by next Wednesday when we have that practice game, we’ll have a really good idea of our lineup.”
As for statistics, there were no particularly eye-catching numbers on Wednesday -- unlike last week’s scrimmage, when starting quarterback Aaron Murray threw three interceptions. Murray bounced back to go 14-for-18 for 173 yards, one touchdown and one interception on Wednesday, with backup Hutson Mason finishing 9-for-19 for 107 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley was the offensive star of the evening, rushing five times for 33 yards and two touchdowns and adding three receptions for another 72 yards. Tailback Keith Marshall had six carries for 39 yards and freshman Brendan Douglas added seven rushes for 50 yards and two catches for another 31 yards.
“[Douglas] was very impressive today,” Richt said. “He ran the ball well, he ran with power, he ran with some vision, he continued to pass [block] pretty good. He’s not perfect in that area.”
Blake Tibbs and Michael Bennett caught the two touchdown passes and Malcolm Mitchell led the receivers with four catches for 58 yards.
Josh Harvey-Clemons, suspended for the opener at Clemson, led the defense with seven tackles and three pass breakups. Amarlo Herrera had five tackles and two pass breakups, while T.J. Stripling, Connor Norman, Garrison Smith and Leonard Floyd all had four stops. Floyd also made a tackle for a loss and would have recorded a sack, Richt said, if not for being blatantly held by an offensive tackle.
Defensive end Toby Johnson recorded the one official sack.
Freshman cornerbacks Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley both made interceptions, with Langley returning his interception 48 yards for a touchdown. Richt said Langley also broke up a pass at the goal line to prevent a touchdown.
The two freshmen are not just competing to be the backups at cornerback, Richt said, they’re competing with Sheldon Dawson to win a starting job alongside junior Damian Swann.
“I’d say they’re all still competing, other than Swanny’s going to be in there,” Richt said. “But who the other starter will be, it’s just a matter of watching what happened in this scrimmage and what happens between now and next Wednesday, probably.”
Kennar Johnson and Lucas Redd also intercepted passes.
The Bulldogs are still contending with a number of injuries, as 15 players appeared on Wednesday’s injury report -- including safeties Tray Matthews (shoulder/hamstring), Corey Moore (knee sprain), Shaquille Fluker (illness), Marc Deas (elbow sprain) and Paris Bostick (foot surgery).
Nose guard Chris Mayes (concussion), linebackers Tim Kimbrough (knee sprain) and Chase Vasser (ankle sprain), receivers Reggie Davis (knee sprain), Rhett McGowan (ankle sprain) and Rantavious Wooten (hamstring strain), tailback A.J. Turman (knee/ankle) and tight end Jay Rome (ankle sprain) were also sidelined.
The good injury news, Richt said, was that he did not believe the team suffered any new injuries during the scrimmage.
“It was a good day. No one was banged up today,” Richt said. “Sometimes the next day you hear something, but today Ron [Courson, Georgia’s director of sports medicine] came to me and said everything looked good, so that’s a blessing.”
However, that might be the case with Bulldogs junior Ramik Wilson, whose performance at one of the starting inside linebacker positions could have a big impact on how the rebuilding defense functions in the first several games.
Georgia signed four talented inside linebackers in its most recent recruiting class, but leaning too heavily on the youngsters might be a problem in the early going with the Bulldogs facing Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in the first month of the season. That leaves the onus on Wilson and fellow junior Amarlo Herrera -- the team’s top returning tackler with 70 stops a season ago -- to perform capably while the freshmen learn on the job.
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Returning players/stats: Amarlo Herrera, Jr. (Nine starts in 2012. 70 tackles, three tackles for a loss, one interception); Ramik Wilson, Jr. (6 tackles, one TFL); Kosta Vavlas, Jr. (9 tackles)
Newcomers: Johnny O’Neal, Fr. (ESPN’s No. 153 overall prospect in the 2013 class, No. 5 ILB. Expected to enroll this summer); Tim Kimbrough, Fr. (No. 289 overall, No. 11 ILB. Expected to enroll this summer); Ryne Rankin, Fr. (No. 296, No. 13 ILB. Enrolled in January); Reggie Carter, Fr. (No. 32 ILB. Enrolled in January).
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“It helps me out a lot,” Wilson said after leading the defense with seven tackles in Tuesday’s scrimmage at Sanford Stadium. “I can just learn one position and just keep going from there. I haven’t got to keep doing double duty and just focus on my time at mike. It’s coming real good.”
So good, in fact, that he has established himself as an early favorite to start alongside fellow junior Amarlo Herrera this fall.
“I’d be thrilled if Ramik continued to improve like he has,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “He’s playing inside now. He was playing outside before. I think he’s comfortable in there. I think that’s probably more of a natural position for him. Hopefully he’ll keep coming on.”
Wilson, Carter and Rankin all have a valuable opportunity this spring to earn playing time before two more inside linebacker signees, Johnny O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough, arrive this summer. With 2012 regulars Alec Ogletree, Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard now pursuing their dreams of playing professional football, only Herrera remains from last season’s rotation -- so position coach Kirk Olivadotti knew this spring would involve major turnover.
The competition on the defensive side of the ball will be the story of the spring, as coordinator Todd Grantham and company work to find replacements for the 12 departed regulars who figured heavily into the Bulldogs’ defensive plans last fall.
Here are five positions that bear close watching this spring:
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Mark Richt’s critics might once have had a point when they observed that his coaching staff gave veterans too much of a benefit of the doubt when it came to playing them over talented young players. The last two seasons have neutralized those criticisms, as it’s hard to imagine Georgia having won the last two SEC East titles without extensive contributions from brand new Bulldogs.
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Vitals: Linebacker Tim Kimbrough, Indianapolis, Ind./Warren Central | 6-foot, 220 pounds
Committed: July 13, 2012
ESPN.com grade: 82. Four-star prospect.
ESPN.com rankings: No. 288 in the ESPN 300, No. 11 inside linebacker, No. 34 in Midwest region, No. 5 in Indiana
Picked Georgia over: Florida, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Arkansas and others.
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The Bulldogs will lose 11 key players off its 2012 defense, and that number could grow to 12 if junior nose guard Kwame Geathers declares for the NFL draft, so spring practice will feature major competition within every defensive position group.
“I kind of put them up on the board the other day and we’ve got some talented guys. It’s just a matter of developing them and working them and filtering it,” Grantham said. “Our depth is going to be better than it’s been the last couple of years, but it’s going to be young. So there’s a little bit at every spot.”
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