ATHENS, Ga. -- If ever there was a good time for Georgia to change defensive line coaches, it's right now.
Longtime UGA assistant Rodney Garner returned to his alma mater, Auburn, and the Bulldogs lost their four most experienced defensive linemen -- John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers, Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington -- in the offseason, leaving new position coach Chris Wilson with a largely inexperienced group of replacements to mold with his own coaching style.
"Guys see that there are a lot of opportunities to get on the field," Wilson said. "I think the energy level is really high and sometimes when you've got a new coach, a new situation, it's like having a clean slate. You get to reinvent yourself, so these guys are having that opportunity right now."
Georgia's depth up front wasn't the greatest last fall, but it's highly possible that Wilson will rotate more players than Garner did in 2012. Among the returners, only rising senior defensive end Garrison Smith has established himself as an effective SEC player, but Wilson sees potential in a number of young and/or inexperienced players who simply haven't seen the field much yet.
He specifically complimented versatile rising junior Michael Thornton and rising sophomore defensive end Sterling Bailey earlier this week and added that junior college transfer Chris Mayes was "showing up a little bit."
Wilson realizes, however, that these impressions are highly preliminary, as the Bulldogs have practiced just once in full pads and will not hold their first spring scrimmage until Tuesday afternoon. And that's when he'll truly begin shaping an opinion on which players are capable of filling slots on his depth chart.
"There is nothing like competition," Wilson said. "The teams that are competitive every year and that are in the national championship hunt, they do one thing really well: they develop depth. Obviously what Georgia's done and what Alabama's done and LSU and so forth, you see how that is really prevalent. You've got to create depth because everybody has got a good 22. It's what you do after it."
Wilson will have plenty of developing to do between now and the Bulldogs' Aug. 31 opener at Clemson. Aside from continuing to prepare veterans like Thornton and Bailey for larger roles, he must also guide early enrollee Mayes and former ESPN 150 prospects Ray Drew, John Atkins and Jonathan Taylor as they hope to make their first significant impact in college.
The good news is that Wilson -- most recently Mississippi State's defensive coordinator after previously coaching in four BCS bowls as a defensive line coach at Colorado and Oklahoma -- has a reputation as a teacher that appealed to Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham after Garner's departure.
"I thought he was the kind of guy that I wanted to coach our front guys. He works them hard, but yet cares about them," Grantham said. "He's a high-energy guy. He looks at the glass half-full, which is the way I like to do it, and he confronts and demands that players do things the right way, and I think he's going to be a great addition to our staff.
"He's got some young guys that he's working to develop, but he's coaching them hard and they're taking to it and you see progress every day, so I'm pleased with it."
Drew is one of those players for whom a fresh start might be a good thing. The No. 13 overall prospect in the 2011 ESPN 150, Drew had only started to work his way into Garner's line rotation late last season. This will be an important year for the rising junior if he is to live up to his recruiting pedigree, and meshing with Wilson's teaching style will be a key factor in his development.
"Coach Wilson is a people's coach," Drew said. "He's very patient because he realizes that if you don't know what to do, you can't play, so he's very patient and he makes sure you know what you're supposed to be doing."
Spring, of course, is a time when Wilson has the luxury of being patient with new players adjusting to his methods and preferences. He has 10 more practices available this spring and then the month of preseason workouts in August to develop his charges into a group that is prepared to face one of the nation's most difficult September schedules, including games against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU.
Although there are obviously a wide range of technical details that he must teach his linemen concerning their roles in Georgia's defensive scheme, Wilson distilled what he wants from his players into three main points.
"I think three things define an SEC football player: A, they play with great effort, so that's No. 1. Two, most of them are pretty great technicians. They're fundamentally sound. And then last but not least, they make good decisions," Wilson said. "And when you get those three things and you use them in SEC play -- a guy who can play with relentless effort, great fundamentals and a guy who makes really good on-the-field decisions -- you usually have a guy who can win games for you in the SEC."