Kirby Smart feels good about his team’s ability to rush the passer. But how often will his Georgia defense force the third-and-long situations that will allow players such as Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter to pin their ears back and chase down opposing quarterbacks?
Smart, the Bulldogs’ first-year head coach, isn’t sure.
“I feel better about rushers than I do about the inside guys. I’m worried about [that],” Smart said Monday during his SEC Car Wash appearance at ESPN headquarters. “The good thing is we don’t play an LSU, Arkansas type that’s just going to break your neck, but we do have to play fast-tempo teams.”
Georgia’s defense already had holes to fill up front following the departures of linemen Chris Mayes, Sterling Bailey, James DeLoach and Josh Dawson, plus bookends Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins. Then Smart dismissed sophomore reserve Chauncey Rivers in May following a third arrest in seven months. And now sophomore Jonathan Ledbetter faces an indefinite suspension following his second alcohol-related arrest this year.
Suddenly a thin depth chart looks like a possible nightmare.
“I’m extremely concerned at defensive line because of the one kid that we had dismissed, Chauncey Rivers, and Ledbetter has got a suspension, so those are two core [players]. I mean Ledbetter’s probably going to be a starter and now he’s out. Rivers is a really good role player, good pass-rusher and he’s gone. We did bring three guys in, but once again, you start counting on freshmen in our league to be starters and it creates problems.”
Surely Smart’s staff will groom the youngsters to contribute, at minimum, even if the Bulldogs don’t have to start them right away. While Trenton Thompson and John Atkins are back to solidify the middle of the line, it’s possible that the freshmen -- led by ESPN’s No. 23 overall prospect Julian Rochester -- play out of necessity.
Eventually Ledbetter will return to the lineup, although Smart was deliberately vague about the timeline.
“I’m not getting into the number of games, but I think it’ll surprise everybody when they find out how many,” he said.
In the meantime, Smart should be thankful that his team will not face a smashmouth rushing team early on, giving his staff time to develop its interior line. Opening opponent North Carolina was one of the nation’s better rushing teams last season -- and star running back Elijah Hood is an early Heisman Trophy candidate after rushing for 1,463 yards in 2015 -- but the Tar Heels run a spread scheme, not a downhill, I-formation attack that would obliterate interior creases.
After the opener, the Bulldogs will face only one opponent -- Tennessee on Oct. 1 -- that ranked in the national top 40 in rushing offense last season before taking on Auburn and Georgia Tech in November.
Maybe Ledbetter will be back by then, and Georgia will have surely developed some depth up front by then regardless.
But Smart remains unsure how the available players will fare on those key early downs, when stuffing the run would create passing situations that allow Bellamy and Carter to do what they do best.
“I’m worried about the 280-to-300-pound guys,” Smart said. “We’ve got some 230, 240 -- Bellamy, Lorenzo Carter, D’Andre Walker. We’ve got some guys that can rush the passer, but we’ve got to get them to rush downs.”