ATHENS, Ga. -- Without question, Georgia enjoys improved depth on its defensive line this season. The question the group faces is: How many of its youngest players can be reliable performers if their services are needed?
"We have depth, but at the same time we're trying to get the guys up to our level," senior nose guard John Jenkins said. "We're trying to get them to understand the playbook. It's no good to have depth and you can't use them."
Four of the Bulldogs' top five defensive linemen return from last season, with only DeAngelo Tyson -- now with the Baltimore Ravens -- leaving the program. Now they've added three former outside linebackers, senior Cornelius Washington, sophomore Ray Drew and redshirt freshman Sterling Bailey, to the mix. Plus, sophomore Michael Thornton seems ready for a more active role after playing intermittently as a freshman in 2011.
Georgia's coaching staff hopes adding the extra bodies to the rotation will help keep the top players fresh -- and help avoid some of the late-game defensive fades that hurt the Bulldogs in their four losses last season.
"All you want to do is have the ability to rotate your guys up front to keep them fresh, because when you're winning the game in the fourth quarter and the other team has to throw the ball, you've got to have some kind of rush," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "And it takes a lot of energy to rush the passer, so you want to try to keep those guys up front as fresh as possible so they can be productive."
The veterans atop the depth chart give Georgia great reason for hope. Jenkins and senior defensive end Abry Jones both earned some preseason All-SEC notice, and Washington is expected to bolster the line's pass-rushing ability after ranking second on the team last season with five sacks.
Junior Kwame Geathers provides a solid alternative to Jenkins at nose guard and junior Garrison Smith performed well in place of Tyson last fall when he suffered a season-ending injury against Georgia Tech. Thornton, meanwhile, can fill in behind Jenkins and Geathers at nose and has added defensive end to his repertoire.
"Right now I'm just trying to get on the field," Thornton said. "I'll do anything the coaches ask me to do to get on the field. I'm trying to learn all the positions so I can do that."
If Drew and Bailey -- and maybe even true freshman Jonathan Taylor, if the coaches opt to use him this season -- also prove themselves as consistent performers, the Bulldogs could have something truly special along the line of scrimmage.
Jenkins believes that is a strong possibility.
"I'm excited for the whole line, period," Jenkins said. "I feel like myself, I can contribute a lot more. I felt like me trying to learn the scheme of things and also try to adjust to the speed of the game in this conference, now I know the conference. And as Coach [Rodney] Garner keeps coaching me up on the small things, I'm excited. ... It's going to be a wonderful year for us, I believe it, if we keep working the way we're doing."
With Jenkins and Geathers at the tip of the spear, Georgia's defense improved seemingly overnight. The center of the defensive line had been a weakness in 2010, when the Bulldogs did not have a reliable presence there, but last fall it became awfully difficult to run up the middle against Georgia.
The massive nose guards will continue occupying double teams this season, theoretically freeing their linemates to wreak havoc. It appears that a few more players with potential are in the mix to contribute this season, which could help the Bulldogs have more staying power in the most physical games this fall.
"You can tell, too, even in practice," Smith said. "You're just seeing how it's going to play out. It's a good thing that you've got more depth."