Coaches looking at ‘rotational depth’ to maximize D-line talent

Georgia leaned heavily on its defensive line starters last season, but coaches left spring practices last week ready to lighten the load and spread the snaps.

“I think we’re going to have at least two deep at the defensive line positions where we’re just going to keep rolling them cats in and keeping them fresh,” Georgia coach Mark Richt told the Touchdown Club of Athens on Monday night at the Athens Country Club.

The days of defensive end Garrison Smith getting 77 snaps in the SEC championship game and 82 in the Capital One Bowl (including on special teams) may be over.

“In this day and age, playing 70 snaps as a D-lineman is counterproductive,” said Chris Wilson, Georgia’s first-year defensive line coach.

Nose guard/defensive end John Jenkins also played 76 in the title game against Alabama when the Crimson Tide ran for 350 yards.

“When you look at the SEC championship game, we did a lot of great things in the game, but the bottom line is that in the second half, we didn’t stop the run,” defensive coodinator Todd Grantham said prior to spring practice. “By adding the depth we have right now, I think that can help facilitate that a little bit.”

Grantham was encouraged that the backup defensive linemen showed physical play to control the line of scrimmage on G-day. If that kind of showing continues, it will make turning to backups easier.

“In my mind, that’s kind of the rotational depth thing that I was looking at,” Grantham said. “I feel like they can help us so that when we come together as a unit, you can really roll those guys and keep them fresh and affect the quarterback and in the run game.”

Richt said there was a “pretty large discrepancy” with the talent on the first and second units last season across the entire defense.

Rodney Garner, who left before the bowl game to return to his alma mater Auburn, coached the defensive line where Mike Thornton played 19 total snaps until the regular season finale against Georgia Tech and defensive end Ray Drew averaged less than five snaps a game in the first nine games of the season.

Cornelius Washington, who also played outside linebacker last season, saw more time at defensive end towards the end of the season after Jones’ injury.

“We subbed some, but we didn’t substitute a lot,” Richt said. “I’ve got a feeling this year we’re going to substitute an awful lot. The No. 1 and No. 2 units are very, very close in talent bases.”

Georgia exited the spring with Smith and Sterling Bailey as the starting defensive ends and Thornton as the starting nose, with the second team made up of ends John Taylor and Drew and nose guard Chris Mayes. Early enrollee John Atkins and junior college transfer Toby Johnson also could factor into the line depth.

“This whole league is about depth, especially depth up front and we’ve got to have it,” said Wilson, a former defensive coordinator at Mississippi State. “The teams that have got guys up front, that you can continually roll them, you’re better in the fourth quarter and you’re more productive.”

When Georgia gave up 206 rushing yards to Kentucky last October, reserves Thornton and Drew did not get any defensive snaps. Smith and Jenkins got 59 and 58 snaps, respectively, and nose guard Kwame Geathers got 38. Abry Jones was lost after only three snaps after tearing tendons in his left ankle and missed the rest of the season.

Jenkins, Geathers, Washington and Jones all could be NFL draft picks next week.

“When Abry went down, it wasn’t like we just threw another guy into the rotation,” Richt said. “At the end, we probably didn’t have enough guys that we felt comfortable putting in there. We’ve got a feeling that we’re going to have a higher comfort level with more guys than we had a year ago basically.”

Wilson said he hopes to “steal snaps” by using players in specific situations like short yardage and goal-line packages. That could be 10 to 15 snaps per game, he said.

“I think they should have done it a little more, but I’m satisfied with what they did,” Geathers said. “You get a fresh guy in there, it’s going to help a lot. You get a fresh guy, you’ll be able to go full speed. All of us are looking for a little break every now and then probably.”

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