Georgia football has had its fair share of veteran defensive linemen to rely on over the years.
Geno Atkins, DeMarcus Dobbs, DeAngelo Tyson, John Atkins, Garrison Smith, Ray Drew, Sterling Bailey, the list can go on — and that’s just back to 2009.
But for the first time in a long time, Georgia won’t have that luxury in 2016. Of a unit of 10 defensive linemen, the Bulldogs have just two upper classmen — John Atkins and Joseph Ledbetter — and not one senior. Ledbetter hasn’t played a snap in his career and Atkins had just 12 tackles in three starts last season.
“I never thought the day would come where I would be the oldest guy in the room, but it did,” Atkins said. “I’ve just got to take on to it and lead.”
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But what Georgia lacks in experience, it more than makes up for in talent.
Seven of the 10 defensive linemen have been brought in in the last two recruiting classes with an average 247 composite rating of 92.58, with four more arriving in the summer.
What that means for the unit, is that young players will have to get significant reps from the start.
“Those kids are playing hard and they are some young kids,” coach Kirby Smart said. “There are some young kids over there that are having to grow up and get reps.”
That’s already shown so far this spring.
True freshman Julian Rochester worked with the first-team in the second practice, alongside sophomores Trent Thompson and Jonathan Ledbetter. On Tuesday, Thompson stayed with the first group and worked alongside redshirt freshman Justin Young and sophomore DaQuan Hawkins.
“I’ve been pleased with some of the young d-linemen,” Smart said. “Michael Barnett has come along and done some good things. DaQuan Hawkins, I’ve really been impressed with him. He plays hard. John Atkins, he plays hard and physical in there. Those guys have been pleasant surprises inside. Justin Young, a guy we moved up today and gave a chance to get some reps. … I’ve been most pleasantly surprised with those guys.”
The one constant that allows Georgia to feel so confident in its young talent is defensive line coach Tracy Rocker.
Now going into his third season, Rocker is one of the few holdovers from the Mark Richt coaching staff. He’s also been with every player on the defensive line now since they arrived at Georgia, which is a big plus among all of the change.
“Coach Rocker’s like a father figure,” Atkins said. “He’s the greatest guy to be around. Once you be around him, I don’t know, it just excited me when he came back because he’s going to bring out the best in you.”
That trust in Rocker is important, because he’s tasked with developing one of the most talented corps of young defensive linemen in the country.
While he does that, he’ll also have to figure out which of those players gives Georgia the best chance to win now, which is likely to include a wide-ranging rotation of players.
“I feel like now we’ll just put together another rotation. David Marshall’s going to come in and work, Tyler (Clark's) definitely going to come in and work, And Michail (Carter) will come in and work,” Rochester said. “I am going to come in and work. All us together will have to find a brotherhood and build this thing together. It starts up front in the SEC. We have to dominate.”