ATHENS - For the first three years of Todd Grantham's tenure at Georgia, the nose tackle position was seen as the key to his 3-4 defense. The addition of John Jenkins before the 2011 season was a huge (literally and figuratively) move, and the results showed.
But with Jenkins and Kwame Geathers gone, and a new defensive line coach on staff, Grantham and Georgia are almost de-emphasizing the nose position. They're talking about a committee approach, with the end and nose spots being inter-changeable.
“It’s not a huge deal playing nose or end in our system. That should be a non-issue," Grantham said last week.
That is a bit different than Grantham has said over the past three years. But to be fair, last year Jenkins did play end, and Garrison Smith moved inside to the nose at times. Smith, the only returning starter on the line, might move inside again in some alignments.
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The other thing is that Georgia actually plays a 4-2-5 alignment more than the 3-4, which remains the base defense, but is increasingly not in use due to more teams using a spread offense. As Josh Harvey-Clemons said this spring, when they play teams like Clemson, they'll mostly be in a 4-2-5, and when they play teams like Alabama, they'll be mostly in a 3-4.
So when it comes to the nose position this year, Georgia will often employ two players on the nose tackle depth chart, or will move an end like Smith or John Taylor inside. Taylor was seen as a prime candidate to start at nose before spring practice, when he moved to end. But it looks like he'll still play a lot of both spots.
"I think the thing about John, the reason it creates competition, he is first of all big enough and stout enough to be a dominant guy inside. But he’s also athletic enough to play the end position," Grantham said. "So we’re gonna find a way to get him on the field and make some plays.”
Junior Mike Thornton, who has been waiting patiently behind Jenkins and Geathers, continues to be the favorite to open as the main starter at nose tackle. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes and prep school transfer John Atkins are the next two, according to Grantham.
“That thing was written in pencil though, so there’s nothing that says we couldn’t erase a guy and put Johnathan Taylor in there if we wanted to," Grantham said.
Chris Wilson, hired this January as the new line coach, has said he doesn't even really see his linemen as noses or ends. In truth, the depth chart still breaks them up by ends and noses, but Wilson's point is that he wants guys to be able to move around, based on what's needed at the time.
Much like the mantra on the offensive line is to find the best five, the emphasis for Grantham and Wilson seems to be to find the best four (or three) for a given time. And much like Xzavier Ward winning the right tackle spot would have a domino effect on the rest of the offensive line, there are things that could happen on the defensive line that could set dominoes off.
“I think that you have to have the flexibility up front to move guys around based on the offense you’re facing and how guys are playing," Grantham said. "Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew are guys that we thought did well in the spring (at end). If those guys continue to flourish there, and that doesn’t mean Johnathan Taylor couldn’t play inside. So I think it’s a matter of how guys are playing, and I’m going to go back to evaluate the first 10 days. We’re open for competition. We’re gonna see how some of these guys do at the end position, and see if that gives us the flexibility to play Johnathan Taylor at nose."