It was Friday morning, not much more than 24 hours before Georgia’s 45-14 win over Vanderbilt began, that Juwan Taylor found out he would be starting at inside linebacker for the first time.
The news came in the form of a phone call. Taylor approached the promotion with what he called a “next man up” mentality. After all, the need for Taylor to start came because two of Georgia’s inside linebackers were not available for the game.
Against Tennessee, senior Reggie Carter suffered an undisclosed injury and did not practice this week. Then on Thursday night, starter Natrez Patrick was arrested in Athens on a charge of misdemeanor possession of marijuana. Neither player traveled with the team to Nashville.
After the win over Vanderbilt, head coach Kirby Smart said discipline for Patrick’s arrest will be “handled internally.” Georgia’s student-athlete handbook mandates a four-game suspension because the arrest was Patrick’s second.
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With Patrick and Carter out, Taylor, a junior with four tackles this season, suddenly faced more playing time. Freshman Monty Rice would also see an uptick in action as Georgia rotated linebackers.
“(There) was a little anxiety, but once I got my first hit I was all right,” Taylor said.
In the second quarter, Taylor burst through the Vanderbilt offensive line for, visibly, his most explosive play of the game. On second-and-3 with the Commodores at midfield, Taylor came off a cross-blitz to tackle running back Khari Blasingame for a 3-yard loss.
“I dreamt for that play my whole life,” Taylor said.
Standing on Vanderbilt’s turf field after the game, Taylor said he had never imagined his first start would come here. Taylor thought he could have played better and he said he needs to improve how he strikes blockers. He was more tired following a game than he would have been normally, but he seemed to relish in the exhaustion.
“It was big seeing him step up and take advantage of the opportunity,” starting linebacker Roquan Smith said.
Taylor finished Georgia’s win with three tackles. Rice had two. On one play, Taylor sprinted to his left to prevent a Vanderbilt player from reaching the perimeter of the field. The player cut, and Rice finished the play with a tacke. After the game, Taylor predicted Rice will one day be a “beast” due to his size and speed.
Smart thought the duo performed “OK” in their increased playing time. Smart did not name either as a starter moving forward, and he said competition at the position will continue in Patrick and Carter’s absence.
“I was proud of the way (Taylor and Rice) handled it,” Smart said. “But we can do better.”