Postcard from Orlando: Defensive matters

semerson@macon.comDecember 28, 2012 

ORLANDO - Georgia practiced for a third straight day at Celebration High School, but on Friday moved to the stadium field, after working on two nearby practice fields the previous two days.

And yes, a high school has multiple practice fields. My high school team had to practice on the area between the softball and baseball fields. And our team was good enough to be once be written up in USA TODAY. (The headline: "High school team finally ends 33-game losing streak." It was our proudest moment.)

From a media standpoint, Friday's practice was a chance to meet up with figures on the defensive side of the ball, so that's what you'll read in today's postcard:

Abry Jones' comeback on track

The loss of John Jenkins could be offset by the return of Abry Jones, but it's still uncertain how much Jones will be able to play. But the senior defensive end is adamant that he will play.

Jones hasn't played since October, after needing ankle surgery. Speaking to the media for the first time since the surgery, Jones said he tore tendons in his left ankle, and had the same surgery that Richard Samuel had last year.

“Just a little tightrope ankle surgery. They had to put all the tendons back together,” Jones said.

From the beginning, Jones' aim was to get back for the bowl, and finish his career on the field. In the past some players have opted not to risk injury in their final college game, but Jones preferred this route.

“I feel like it’s my senior year and I missed so much, I always wanna play one more game with the fellas," he said. "So definitely if I feel confident enough and they let me play, I’m gonna play. That’s what I want to do.”

Now it's a matter of how healthy he will be for Tuesday's game. Jones admitted he's not close to 100 percent, and is more like 75 or 85 percent. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham sounded cautious.

“We’ll continue to work him today and see how he moves around and feels. And then from there we’ll decide what his role would be in the game," Grantham said. "Coming off an injury like that I think he can really give us some depth and spot play, things like that, if he continues to function at a rate that can help us. So it’s just a matter of working the next couple days and trying to define the role he can help us in.”

Grantham on DL coach search

Grantham said he's looking at "several" candidates for the defensive line coaching job, which was vacated when Rodney Garner left for Auburn on Dec. 20. And no, Grantham did not say much else, and declined to say whether he would look in the NFL ranks or college.

"I think what we’ll do is get through this game and coach and I will sit down and talk a little more about it, and try to get something solidified after the bowl game,” Grantham said.

During bowl preparation, Grantham will coach both the linemen and the outside linebackers. He meets with both units together before and after practice. During practice, Grantham works with one unit while a graduate assistant - Brandon Wheeling with the linemen and Mike Kelly with the outside linebackers - works with the other unit.

“We’re only talking about roughly 15-20 minutes of the practice. And then from there we just go to our team stuff,” Grantham said.

Grantham has coached defensive linemen in the pros, but he was adamant that he wanted to continue to coach the outside linebackers, so he'll hire a defensive line coach.

“That’s what we lost. There’s some quality candidates out there. Really excited about some guys that have talked about being interested," Grantham said. "It’s just a chance for us to continue to develop our program and fill that slot and continue to move forward.”

Geathers reacts to Garner departure

Junior nose tackle Kwame Geathers s didn’t have any new info on his decision, although one thing has changed: The departure of Garner means that if Geathers returns he has a new position coach. How does that affect his decision?

“I mean of course I’ve been with coach G for four years. That’s who recruited me, that’s who brought me in here. It hurt to see him go. I would’ve loved to have been able to have him be my coach again," Geathers said. "But I’m not really thinking about it too much now, about my decision right now. I just want to get through the bowl game.”

Geathers also indicated he wouldn’t be waiting to see who Garner’s replacement would be.

“It’s a separate thing. I haven’t really thought about it like that,” he said. “I came down here for the bowl game, first thing first, basically.”

Geathers did apply to the NFL draft advisory board – which he didn’t do last year, when he was eligible as a redshirt sophomore. Geathers said he hasn’t heard back yet.

Thornton ready after chop-block injury vs. GT

Sophomore nose tackle Mike Thornton is one guy who could see more playing time with Jenkins out, and would stand to benefit if Geathers left early. But for a brief time last month, Thornton thought his season might be over.

He suffered a leg injury in the fourth quarter against Georgia Tech, in a play that caused a memorable television moment for those still watching the game. At first, Thornton feared the worst.

“Of course I feared the worst at first, because I felt pain in my knee," he said. "But it turned out to be just an ankle, and I’m happy just to be back already.”

And what happened on that play?

“I got chop-blocked. The guy cut me on that,” Thornton said.

Georgia coaches also weren't happy. The television broadcast picked up some colorful curse words from the adjacent coaching booth.

“I heard coaches were giving them hell in the press box,” Thornton said, with a smile. “Just to know they’re 100 percent behind me, offense and defense, special teams coaches.”

Thornton (6-foot-1, 302 pounds) is about five inches shorter and 50 pounds lighter than Geathers. But Geathers and head coach Mark Richt think Thornton can fill in just fine.

“This is the time for him to step up, and I think he’s ready,” Geathers said. “I think he’s gonna be a big help.”

“He’s just very strong," Richt said. "He’s stout, got a low center of gravity, we have trouble blocking him when we go with our 11-on-11 stuff, (and) in inside drill stuff. So I feel confident that he can play well.”

Thornton also realizes this is a chance to prove himself, after sitting behind Jenkins and Geathers for two years - and with younger players (including freshman John Taylor) poised to compete for the job.

“I feel like every day is another chance to show what I can do next year and the year after that. The opportunity is just there," Thornton said. "We’ve got a good group of guys coming in for next year, and we’re just gonna all work. We’ve gotta work, so we can show the new coach that we can all play.”

Fun and football

As practices are in the morning, the players get the rest of the day to go on bowl-sponsored entertainment binges. It was a trip to Universal Studios on Thursday, where safety Shawn Williams provided the entertainment with this tweet at the UGA Athletics Twitter feed:

"If you gone tweet every place we are at you should stop the annoying group of ppl harassing us."

On Friday, the players had the option of attending the other bowl in town: The Russell Athletic Bowl, featuring Virginia Tech vs. Rutgers.

Grantham, a graduate of Virginia Tech, said he planned on going with his family.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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