Back to square one

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's defensive line was going to be a position to watch in 2013 even before Rodney Garner's departure for Auburn.

But after the Bulldogs' longtime defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator accepted a job at his alma mater last week, the position moved even closer to starting from scratch in the spring.

At minimum, the Bulldogs will lose seniors John Jenkins, Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington next season. So any form of continuity heading into next season could hinge on whether draft-eligible juniors Kwame Geathers and Garrison Smith decide to return for their senior season.

"Kwame's decision is very important. I think you look different with a Kwame Geathers than you do without him," Garner said last week, a few days before accepting the Auburn job. "I ask him where he is in it. Right now he says he hasn't made a decision one way or another. I imagine he'll spend some time with his family over the holidays and hopefully he'll come to a conclusion here quick."

Smith, meanwhile, said prior to Garner's departure that he intended to return next season. The defensive end joined the starting lineup at midseason when Jones suffered an ankle injury that cost him the rest of the regular season and managed to lead the defensive linemen in tackles with 55.

He admitted that acquaintances have advised him to leave early because the line will be rebuilding next fall.

"I've had people come up to me and say like, 'It probably would be best for you to leave this year, so you can leave with these guys, these great defensive players. You had a great season and next year it might be rough for you because everybody might try to be able to focus more on you to get you blocked,' " said Smith, whose team will reconvene Wednesday in Orlando, Fla., as it begins preparations for the Capital One Bowl matchup with Nebraska on Jan. 1.

"But I'm not worried about that. Like I say, I'll do whatever I can to help the team and if it takes me getting blocked, triple-teamed, I'll do it to free up the rest of the guys to make plays. Because it's not an individual game, it's about the team and if that's what helps the team win, I'm all for it."

If both Smith and Geathers return, Georgia's new defensive line coach will be able to focus more of his attention on developing depth at the position. But if one or both players were to depart, the new coach would essentially have to reconstruct the depth chart from top to bottom.

Ray Drew and Sterling Bailey have gotten their feet wet at defensive end and Michael Thornton has played in mop-up duty at nose guard behind Jenkins and Geathers, but none of the candidates for increased playing time have significant experience yet.

Freshman nose guard Jonathan Taylor will also rank high among the contenders after redshirting this season.

"We know that we've got a lot of great athletes leaving, but we also know we've got to take it upon ourselves to improve and get better each day so we can step up next year and we can fill our responsibility of what we've got to do," Taylor said.

Jenkins said the talent that the younger players bring to the table, plus the addition of a handful of newcomers -- a group that could include signee Chris Mayes (Griffin/Ga./Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College), commits John Atkins (Thomson, Ga./Hargrave Military) and nose DeAndre Johnson (Newnan, Ga./Northgate) and possibly heavily recruited prospect Montravius Adams (Vienna, Ga./Dooly County) -- will help the line remain productive.

"I see good things for the line," Jenkins said. "A lot of people don't know the people that we've got coming in and the guys that we already have. … You can't count the line out yet or anything. You really can't count us out because of the fact that we still have good leadership that's going to be around."

That leadership would start with Smith and/or Geathers, of course, and Smith fully understood that responsibility when he discussed returning next season.

"I'm a team guy," Smith said. "That's part of the reason why I'm coming back, because I feel like we can do great things. I would hate to see this program with no defensive linemen with any experience and I just want to help the team as much as I can. If that's taking on blocks, double teams, triple teams, I'll do it.

"Hopefully if I don't get the stats or whatever, an NFL team, they'll understand. I'm not worried about the NFL. If that's going to happen, it's going to happen. All I can do now is just play as hard as I can for Georgia."