ATHENS – With all due respect to walk-ons Ben Harbin and Trenton Turner, Demarcus Dobbs is happy to see the pair practicing with the tight ends this fall.
Six months ago, Harbin and Turner were the emergency reserves, moved from the offense to defensive end just to give Georgia enough players to scrimmage. Injuries at the position had occurred so frequently, that the two walk-ons with less than two weeks’ worth of practice at the position were the Bulldogs’ second-string defensive ends for the annual spring game.
It was ugly, and it was a lesson Dobbs said the team has learned about the need for depth this year.
“Depth is going to be very important,” Dobbs said. “Oklahoma State’s going to be hot, and they’re a fast-paced offense. We’re going to need people to step in who can run, hit, know their assignments.”
The opener against Oklahoma State is just the start of a long season, but the status of Georgia’s defensive ends for the game remains a concern.
Starter Justin Houston will be serving the first of a two-game suspension, leaving Georgia with just two other experienced defensive ends to help slow down the Cowboys’ explosive offensive attack – Dobbs, and senior Rod Battle. That puts the pressure on five fresh faces to step up quickly if the Bulldogs hope to improve on the problems they endured in the pass rush a year ago.
The situation is so fluid that there remains a distinct possibility that freshman Montez Robinson could earn a redshirt this season or he could see significant action against Oklahoma State. He has shown flashes of potential this fall, but has also endured many of the typical freshman obstacles.
“I think he’s been coming along great,” Dobbs said. “Everybody has their struggles they go through, but he’s been keeping his head up, kept grinding.”
Robinson and fellow freshman Reuben Faloughi are both hoping to make an early impact, and if redshirt freshman Cornelius Washington is right, that may be a real possibility.
“To win games, the defense needs depth, and the young guys are going to need to be able to step in and give the older guys a blow,” Washington said. “They’re young, but they’re learning. They’re learning at a pretty fast pace, so they’re on track.”
Of course, Washington’s no grizzled veteran either.
As a freshman last season, he missed nearly the entire year with injuries, costing him much needed reps in practice to prepare for the role he’ll inherit this season.
Washington is finally healthy, but he said there’s still plenty of rust he needs to shake loose before he can reach his potential.
“There’s nothing like physical reps, and when I first came back I could tell I hadn’t played football in a while,” Washington said. “I just had to kick it into the next gear and try to keep going.”
Once Washington is comfortable, however, he could be a valuable weapon. In high school, Washington’s athleticism allowed him to play on offense at times, and he ran track during the offseason. Whether he can put that speed to use on Saturdays, however, will likely depend on his health.
“He’s terribly fast,” Tripp said. “The guy ran track in high school and set records. You can imagine him on the field now and looking like a linebacker at D-end.”
Tripp is another of Georgia’s new-look defensive ends.
After starting his career on the defensive line, Tripp was moved to offensive tackle two years ago, then later to tight end and back to the offensive line. In January, he made what he hopes will be his final position change, back to his original home.
The adjustment hasn’t been simple, and step 1 was getting into shape for his new role. On the offensive line, Tripp checked in at 295 pounds. After adjusting his offseason diet, he’s down to 270 and in far better shape for sprinting past offensive tackles.
“I feel lighter, I feel better,” Tripp said. “I’m quicker coming off the edge, but I still have the same strength when I was 295.”
Tripp isn’t the only veteran adjusting to a new job on the defensive line.
After missing all of last season, linebacker Marcus Washington returned to find a crowded depth chart at his natural position. Coaches noted his strength and thought he might be a match-up problem as a rush end, however, and Washington saw action as a pass rusher in Georgia’s spring game.
The move became permanent this fall, and while Washington said he has felt like a freshman at times, trying to pick up the intricacies of his new position, he’s encouraged by the opportunity to make an impact in his final season.
“In my mind I kind of wanted to be able to say, yeah, I can play defensive end,” Washington said.
Houston will be back for Georgia’s third game of the season against Arkansas, but that doesn’t mean the Bulldogs’ pass rush will be settled.
Finding reliable starters who can get to the quarterback has been one of Georgia’s primary concerns this fall, but the reward might be a group of new faces who are ready to contribute even when the depth chart looks a bit more full.
“We need No. 2 and hopefully even No. 3 guys to prove they’re reliable and prove to coaches that if they go into the game, they can be counted on to know what to do and play with the kind of fire that you need to to wear the ‘G’ on your helmet,” Richt said.