Georgia's new-look and ever-changing defensive line

semerson@macon.comApril 1, 2013 

ATHENS - When Chris Wilson was hired as Georgia's defensive line coach, it was a chance for several returning players to have a fresh start. As a result, perhaps the biggest are of need on Georgia's defense already looks a lot different than it did when spring practice began.

John Taylor, considered a good candidate to start at nose tackle, is now a defensive end - where he has a chance to make a move on the starting job.

Mike Thornton, less than afterthought at nose tackle his first three years on campus, is now the clear first-teamer.

It looks like as many seven defensive linemen have a chance to play - and that doesn't even count the players set to arrive this summer.

You can also probably count on guys moving around a lot, with players classified as ends lining up as the nose in the nickel defense, and nose tackles lining up on the edge in other alignments. That's not new, as it happened last year. But Wilson seems a lot more of the same mind with defensive coordinator Todd Grantham on the position-switching.

"My whole deal is I don't box guys in," Wilson said. "Because you're always trying to find a way to get your best players on the football field. I don't classify guys as just a nose and just an end. They're all Xs at the end of the day, and we want to put them in the best position to make plays for us. And those guys really give us a little flexibility."

It's been the second chance for a first impression for Wilson's players, and the two players who appear to have taken the most advantage are Thornton and Sterling Bailey.

Thornton has the most experience among the nose tackles, and his size (only 6-foot-1 and 301 pounds, far smaller than John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers) isn't considered a detriment. Or at least the coaches like what Thornton has done so much - Mark Richt said center David Andrews has had trouble blocking Thornton - that they're overlooking the size issue.

"That's the good thing about me having the experience that I've had with Coach (Grantham), because I know what to expect now," Thornton said, then smiled as he added: "They don't get me out of the hole as they used to, back in the day when I first got here. Just being able to play my kind of ball, confident ball, is all that I'm about these days."

Chris Mayes, the junior college transfer, is on the second-team right now behind Thornton. At 330 pounds, Mayes is closer to the classic nose tackle, but it will take time for him to be up to speed on the fundamentals.

“He’s so strong. He’s like a John Jenkins all over again," Thornton said. "He came from the same school (as Jenkins), so he kind of does the same things John did when he came here. But he’s gonna pan out as the season goes along.”

Bailey is also emerging from obscurity. Two years ago he redshirted and watched as his fellow Dream Teamers played on Georgia's division championship team. Then he saw Ray Drew, one of the highest-rated of those Dream Teamers, get moved down to end - right after Bailey had suffered a foot injury.

"It was hard, just sitting there and seeing the people I came in with out there playing," Bailey said. "It was hard, I mean I was like: Man, just think if I would've been healthy this season, could I be out there? Going into this spring I keep that in my mind, using it as a motivation."

Bailey, who didn't travel with the team in 2011, watched Georgia's games by himself or went home to watch with his family.

Then last year, still feeling some affects from the foot injury (a Lisfranc fracture), he played in all of three games, recording all of one tackle.

But the departures of so many key players from last year's line opened up a spot. Bailey made a very early positive impression on not only Wilson, but also Grantham, each of whom singled him out for praise the first week of spring practice.

It doesn't guarantee anything, as Bailey still figures to share time with Drew, and possibly Taylor. But it's a much better feeling than being a non-factor.

"With all my setbacks I knew this day was eventually gonna come. And so far I'm handling it well. I'm healthy, and I'm really enjoying this spring," Bailey said. "The feeling's great. Looking back then and where I am now, I've proved a lot, showing coaches that I can play. I'm really happy with myself, but I'm not too happy because I know I've got some things to work on."

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