ATHENS — By his own admission, Darryl Gamble’s career at Georgia has been one of confounding inconsistency.
Big moments in big games have been followed by mysterious disappearances. There has been a conflict with his position coach. And entering his senior year, he seemed destined to get beat out by a bigger and younger player.
These days, however, Gamble has a new outlook, a new coach and a new chance to be an impact player.
“That’s always been my thing, to have a big year,” Gamble said. “I never had a complete year. Just had some sparks here and there. But just try to have a complete season with just making plays every game.”
A little more than two weeks before the season opener, Gamble appears to be in an even battle with Cornelius Washington to start at one outside linebacker spot. Justin Houston is basically assured the other spot.
Washington, a sophomore, had an edge, a huge one, entering camp. But he knows that has changed.
“He is definitely pushing hard,” Washington said. “He’s keeping me on my toes, that’s for sure. We’re kind of splitting time right now, so I feel like we’re probably neck-and-neck more than anything else.”
Head coach Mark Richt said Gamble, after safety Shawn Williams, might be the most improved player since spring practice. Conditioning is the main reason, but Richt also sensed something clicking in the senior.
“Once the season ended, I think he’s been really sincere about wanting to be a leader, about wanting to have a great senior year, just wanting to do it right. Not be the guy that you’ve gotta push,” Richt said. “I just saw a new sense of this self-motivation. Not only for himself but to help others get better too. I think it’s just maturity. A guy growing up, saying I want to be special, I want to reach my potential, and show me how. Help me to learn how to do that.”
It has been a topsy-turvy past 365 days for Gamble. He had nine tackles, a sack and a forced fumble in last year’s win over South Carolina. He was on the watch list for the Butkus Award, given annually to the nation’s top linebacker.
But his numbers went down, and Washington moved ahead of him.
Gamble admitted that he “didn’t see eye-to-eye” with previous linebackers coach John Jancek. Gamble credits the presence of new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, giving him a spark he needed.
“I guess it’s just finding love for the game again,” Gamble said. “I was in a slump.”
And those issues with Jancek, now the linebackers coach and co-defensive coordinator at Cincinnati?
“It’s pretty much in the past,” Gamble said. “It was always just butting heads with things. It was just ongoing. I’m just glad I got Coach Grantham now, that’s the main thing.”
Ironically, in Jancek’s biography at Cincinnati, Gamble is mentioned in the fourth paragraph, for earning a national player of the week award in 2008, when he had two interceptions returned for touchdowns against LSU.
As for Washington, he still has plenty of time to reclaim the position. He’s bigger than Gamble (6-foot-4 to 6-2, while both are 255 pounds), and had gaudier stats: four sacks and 13 quarterback pressures.
But Washington knows his defense against the run will have to get better to get playing time. And while Gamble has wowed coaches so far this month, Washington admitted he has had some days where “things weren’t flowing as well.”
So the competition goes on.
“I feel like coach ought to put the best people on the field; if he ends up beating me out, then he’s better,” Washington said. “But that doesn’t mean I’m going to go down without a fight.”