Gilliard gets in middle of things

ATHENS, Ga. -- Bacarri Rambo can admit when he was wrong, and he was wrong about Mike Gilliard.

The Georgia safety fell victim to the same fears as much of the Bulldogs' fan base when starting inside linebackers Alec Ogletree and Christian Robinson went down with foot injuries on consecutive weeks, leaving the Bulldogs with few proven options at the position for at least two games.

Gilliard took over in Robinson's role not only as a starter, but as the player responsible for making the on-field defensive calls, and Rambo was unsure how he'd handle the responsibility in his first college start. But Gilliard not only allayed Rambo's concerns with the way he capably handled the defensive communication, he also led the Bulldogs with eight tackles in Saturday's 59-0 win against Coastal Carolina.

"I feel like he's doing better than I thought he would do," Rambo said. "I thought it was going to be a little problem with him, but he impressed me by the way he's playing and the way he's communicating with us to have everybody on the same page."

Rambo said his pregame opinion wasn't so much a knock against Gilliard as it was a concern over the infinitely more important role his teammate would play in one week's time. Gilliard previously played a relatively minor role on Georgia's defense, totaling 15 tackles in his first two seasons. He matched his 2010 tackle total with the eight stops against Coastal Carolina, including two tackles for negative yardage.

"The game is fast, man, and you have to know your stuff then and there, and you can't be thinking about it," Rambo said. "Once they make the call, you have to get everybody on the same page, so I thought that was going to be very difficult, but he handled it very well."

Gilliard was anxious over the increase in playing time, as well. He was finally getting his chance to contribute, so he put in extra work to make sure he understood the proper adjustments he'd have to instruct teammates to make on the fly, like when the opposing offense sends a man in motion to the opposite side of the field before the snap.

"I really feel like a lot of guys aren't very good communicators," Gilliard said. "You have to be a good vocal communicator out there and understand the offense and make all the checks correct. That's one of the toughest things I had trouble with at first. In high school, I made a couple checks here and there, but coming here to Georgia and playing for [defensive coordinator Todd] Grantham, you've got to know it. Like he said, if you don't know it, you're not going to play."

Grantham and Gilliard's position coach, Kirk Olivadotti, agreed with Rambo's assessment of the play of the junior from Valdosta. They, too, sensed his increased sense of urgency, which became evident in the way he fulfilled his duties against Coastal Carolina.

"I was proud of Mike," Grantham said. "I thought Mike did real well. I thought Mike took command of the huddle. He had a presence, he was physical, and I thought he did a solid job. He's continuing to prepare well, and I was pleased with his progress. The one thing about injuries is they create depth. So as these guys come back, hopefully he'll create a little more depth."

Both Robinson and Ogletree are out for Saturday's game at Ole Miss, but Georgia coach Mark Richt has expressed hope that Robinson will return next week to face Mississippi State, while Ogletree probably will miss at least another two or three games. Until they make it out of the trainer's room, the Bulldogs will rely on Gilliard to help keep the defensive players on the same page and in the proper position when the play begins.

Olivadotti was pleased with Gilliard's debut effort in the role but knows Gilliard has areas to improve to make the defense operate more smoothly.

"That's something he's been working on, and we've been working with him through spring and through the summer camp," Olivadotti said. "He takes it real serious, and the communication, it can get better no matter who it is. It doesn't matter who your Mike linebacker is, he's going to have to be a communicator. That's a skill also, to be able to think fast, talk fast, get it out, recognize and do all those things quickly, and it is a skill that takes a lot of effort to do, and Mike's willing to put that effort in."

Gilliard proved last week that he was worthy of a start in place of an injured veteran. Now he hopes to help the Bulldogs stay in the hunt for the SEC East title and to prove he deserves playing time when Ogletree and Robinson return to the lineup.

"I had to step my game up and just prove to everybody I can go out there and play, which I'm going to continue doing now," he said. "It's SEC play now, so I've got to go out there and do even better, watch even more film and study the opponent even more."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.