ATHENS, Ga.—Last week, Georgia’s inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler caused somewhat of a stir when he claimed, “I think at this point [the inside linebackers are] better than where we were last year.” It was a rather bold statement considering the Bulldogs lost their two starting inside linebackers from a year ago, Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera, arguably two of the best inside linebackers in Georgia history.
Wilson, who tallied a combined 243 tackles in 2013 and 2014, earned All-SEC recognition both seasons. Herrera, named to the AP’s All-SEC first team last year, became only the 16th Bulldog in history to total 300 tackles for a career, and the first Georgia defender in 17 years (Greg Bright, 1994-1997) to be a four-year starter. Both players were selected in May’s NFL Draft.
Ekeler added that he thought this year’s inside linebackers had “better technique than anybody in college football.” Head coach Mark Richt downplayed the comments by calling the assistant “a very positive, upbeat guy,” while exhibiting a big smile.
Still, if you talk to any of Ekeler’s players, perhaps you’ll understand why their technique is so highly thought of.
“[Technique] is something Coach [Ekeler] really puts an emphasis on,” senior inside linebacker Jake Ganus said following today’s morning practice. Because the Bulldogs had the day off from practice yesterday because of the weather, the team will undergo a second practice this evening. “Technique in football has somewhat become a lost art with all the hurry-up and spread [offenses]. You can lose some technique [by facing those types of offenses]—your footwork, your steps, and where your eyes are.”
Ganus, who transferred from UAB and will play with the Bulldogs a single season, entered fall camp as the top reserve at Will linebacker behind junior Tim Kimbrough. Last season, Kimbrough led all Georgia defenders who didn’t make at least a handful of starts in tackles with 32 while making no starts. Projected to start at the other inside position, Mike linebacker, is junior Reggie Carter.
As far as their backups, another statement by Ekeler is Georgia’s inside linebacker position has “a whole hell of a lot of depth.”
Joining Ganus as seemingly reserves are most notably junior Ryne Rankin, the team’s most improved player of the year last season, and four newcomers: true freshmen Natrez Patrick, Roquan Smith, and Juwan Taylor, and 22-year-old walk-on Nick Moore. Patrick, an early enrollee in the spring, and Smith were considered two of the best at their position in the country coming out of high school. Although Taylor was a late bloomer, he was eventually regarded as one of the best linebacker prospects in his native state of Florida. Moore, a unanimous first team 5-A All-State defensive back at Brookwood High School (Snellville, Ga.) in 2010, played minor league baseball for affiliates of the Boston Red Sox for four years before recently deciding to walk on at Georgia.
Thus far during fall camp, the group has provided stiff completion for Kimbrough and Carter, and likely will continue to do so up to when the season kicks off in just 25 days.
“The competition [at inside linebacker] is good,” said Rankin. “Everybody’s busting their butt every day, trying to go out there and compete.” Rankin added that he and the other older inside linebackers have been helping out the younger players both on and off the field.
“This isn’t high school anymore (for the newcomers)…This ain’t Kansas anymore,” Rankin quipped with a laugh. “Actually, they’ve adapted pretty well, and have performed well in camp. Roquan can chop his feet really well, stay low really well, Natrez is a big powerful dude, Juwan is really smart, and Nick is a thumper.”
Few will argue with Ekeler’s statement that Georgia has plenty of depth at inside linebacker; however, as far as it being better than last year’s unit, while having better technique than anybody in college football, there’s likely only one way that can be resolved.
“He made that statement,” Ganus said of Ekeler, “so now we have to go out there and prove it.”