When it comes to the defensive line, age is only a number to Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.
The Bulldogs will enter the 2016 season with a dearth of experience on the defensive line thanks to the departures of Sterling Bailey, Chris Mayes, James DeLoach and Josh Dawson. As a result, several freshmen will be called upon for meaningful minutes, such as Julian Rochester, David Marshall, Tyler Clark and Michail Carter.
It’s a prospect that Smart said isn’t disconcerting.
“We're going to have to play a lot of guys up front,” Smart said. “The plan is not about what year you are in school; it's how ready you are to play. Each one of those guys has repped in camp, so our expectation is all those guys would be able to perform to our standards.”
Rochester is one of the young players garnering the most attention. The 6-foot-5, 316-pound freshman has made strides during the preseason and was listed as one of the second-string defensive ends on the team’s latest depth chart.
Despite his felony arrest in April, Smart made it apparent Rochester will be good to go in the Georgia Dome.
“Why wouldn’t he (play)?” Smart said. “Julian's done everything we've asked Julian to do. He's done a great job for us, and we're excited about where Julian is.”
The man in front of Rochester on the depth chart, sophomore DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle, applauded Rochester and the rest of the freshman linemen for the way they’ve prepared before their first season.
“I've seen them work hard,” Hawkins-Muckle said. “They're coachable. I feel like they're looking up to us. We just have to keep doing whatever to make sure they feel ready to play.”
One year ago, Hawkins-Muckle was in their shoes as a freshman. This time around, he is among the players trying to mentor the newcomers. He kept his message simple for his new teammates, telling them the task ahead is nothing new from the ones they’ve faced in the past.
The stage is just a little bigger this time.
On the other side of the ball, senior center Brandon Kublanow gave glowing reviews about the new defensive linemen. He pointed out that their youth shouldn’t be used against them, and that the strength coach would hold them back if they weren’t up to the challenge of playing.
“I mentioned Julian the last time I was here, (but) I think they've all did a great job,” Kublanow said. “They're young kids, but they've developed really fast. I'm excited to see what they're going to bring for us Saturday.”
The age issue has been brought up several times concerning the team’s quarterback battle, but it is present at defensive line as well. On both fronts, Smart said there’s no hesitation in giving a freshman abundant playing time.
“If you're old enough to play, you're old enough to start,” Smart said. “If you're good enough to play, you're good enough to start. It comes down to what's the best opportunity for us. It's not about the age factor.”
Hawkins-Muckle sounded like he was imitating his new head coach when he was asked a similar question about the youth among his defensive line unit.
“Age don't matter,” Hawkins-Muckle said.