Strong at strongside

ATHENS, Ga. -- If James DeLoach fails to open the season as one of Georgia's starting outside linebackers, it won't be for lack of opportunity.

Because senior Chase Vasser is out this spring recovering from shoulder surgery, the Bulldogs lack any meaningful experience at the strongside linebacker position. That leaves DeLoach, a rising sophomore, with a golden opportunity to prove he deserves the job -- although it was still a bit intimidating to take the field as a starter when the Bulldogs opened spring practice.

"I can't really explain it. I can't even imagine what it's going to be like on G-Day," DeLoach said. "Now I've just got to keep working hard and maintain the position."

With Vasser out and players like All-American Jarvis Jones -- who manned the position late in the 2012 season -- out of the picture, DeLoach and converted inside linebacker Brandon Burrows are playing there this spring. The position battle will become more competitive in August, once Vasser is back and members of the Bulldogs' signing class are on campus. But it is DeLoach's time now to show what he can do, and he impressed the coaches in Georgia's practices before spring break.

"DeLoach really looks good. He's really in tremendous condition, he's a great athlete," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "It's going to be interesting to see how he can do. We are not as big up front, but we're pretty quick and athletic. It's going to be interesting to see how we'll hold up against a smashmouth team and all that kind of thing as the season goes on. But we've still got some guys that can really run."

Georgia had one of the nation's biggest defensive fronts last season, particularly when 359-pound John Jenkins and 355-pound Kwame Geathers were on the field at the same time. Richt is correct that his 2013 defensive front won't have anyone quite that massive, but it's not like 340-pound nose guard Chris Mayes or fellow defensive linemen Jonathan Taylor (335), John Atkins (305) and Garrison Smith (297) are small people.

And then, if Jordan Jenkins (257) and DeLoach (265) are on either edge at the outside linebacker spots, you're still looking at a sizable front that also boasts impressive athleticism.

"The guys that we've got coming in, they can move and they can run," DeLoach said, referring to early enrollees Mayes and Atkins, "so, yeah, we'll probably be a little bit smaller compared to John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, but we'll be able to move and we'll be quicker."

Georgia didn't know what it had on its hands when it initially signed DeLoach 13 months ago. He played multiple positions at tiny Jenkins County (Ga.) High School and could have played several positions in college, including middle linebacker, defensive end or outside linebacker.

But defensive coordinator Todd Grantham put him into the mix at outside linebacker and often spoke last fall of how the freshman flashed potential at the position. And there he remains, although DeLoach has at times slid into a defensive end spot when the Bulldogs adjusted their 3-4 base scheme to an alignment that featured four down linemen.

"We're going to play him at Sam linebacker and he'll be a physical presence there," Grantham said before the start of spring practice. "I've been real pleased with his progress, his movements, and he was really in that meeting room last year so he kind of understands all the things. He just hasn't done it as much as other people.

"So we're excited to get him out there and get him going with what we're doing because I think he's a guy that we'll be looking to be a contributor for us in the fall."

Now DeLoach has to hold off the competition to win the job, pointing out that he has to continue sharpening his technique and learn to diagnose his assignments in the various roles he might play in Grantham's scheme.

But as the Bulldogs return from spring break this week and hit the practice field, DeLoach will do so as a first-teamer. And the young linebacker won't deny that it's a thrill.

"It's important," DeLoach said. "It's every kid's dream to be able to play D1 ball, and being able to start here at the university would mean so much to me and so much to my family. I'm just going to keep working hard every day and keep pushing myself."