Garrison Smith: Look out for Toby and ‘Meatball’

Garrison Smith is having a blast. He’s down in Pensacola, Fla., training hard for the NFL draft with a group called Athletes Performance Institute. He’s optimistic about his NFL prospects and, with his UGA degree already in hand, feels ready for whatever the future holds for him.

But in a lot of ways Smith wishes he could still be in Athens getting ready for another football season next fall. Smith was the only starter the Bulldogs lost off last year’s defense. With all the experience they have coming back and the new changes that are afoot, he believes Georgia’s defense is going to surprise some folks — particularly when it comes to the defensive line.

“Our defense was a machine,” said Smith, who led the down linemen with 63 tackles, 10 tackles for loss and six sacks.  “Our secondary was just too young. Hopefully they will grow up this season.”

His absence aside, Smith thinks Georgia fans should be excited about the potential of the Bulldogs’ defensive front.  Returning starters Sterling Bailey, Ray Drew and Chris Mayes are reason enough for encouragement, but he points to a couple of non-starters as real aces in the hole for next season.

“Next year, Toby Johnson will be the man,” Smith predicted. “And ‘Meatball’ Mike Thornton will also be a key guy, in my opinion.  A lot of people don’t realize how great a player Meatball is and he’s finally about to get his shot. And Toby is an awesome athlete. He just had to learn the defense.”

Smith sees Johnson, a 6-foot-4, 305-pound junior, stepping up in his spot at left defensive end, with Drew and Bailey alternating and staying fresh on the other side of the line. Thornton and Chris Mayes will handle the dirty work in the middle, and both could be playing at the same time more often than we’re accustomed to seeing. Smith said it’s his understanding  the Bulldogs’ will utilize a 4-3 look more than a 3-4 next season under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

In the 3-4, he said, Georgia’s D-linemen had to be very rigid in carrying out their assignments and maintaining gap control. The 4-3 allows more for “free-styling,” which suits the games of Johnson and Thornton.

“That’s why I think Meatball is about to get his chance,” Smith said of Thornton. “I think the 4-3 defense is more suitable to him. He is a penetrator.”

Smith said he hated seeing Chris Wilson leave Georgia for Southern Cal. But he was as pumped as anybody about Tracy Rocker’s hiring. Smith knows him going back to his recruitment out of Atlanta’s Douglass High.

“Good dude,” Smith said. “He’ll be a good addition.”

As for himself, Smith is planning to give the NFL a full go. Depending on the draft projections you call up, he’s generally listed as a late-rounder or possible free agent.

But Smith’s not spending much time sweating it. In fact, he said whatever he ends up doing it will only be temporary until he fills his true calling.

“When my NFL career is over, I’ll be the permanent D-line coach at UGA,” Smith said. “Go ahead and plant that seed. I’m a Dawg for life!”

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