We now enter the home stretch of this series, which is providing the vital journalistic service of filling time until real stuff begins.
(SEC media days is next week. Georgia’s preseason camp begins two weeks after that. It’s close, people, it’s real close.)
Reminder: This is not a ranking of Georgia’s best players. It is an evaluation of which players are most vital to the team’s success this season based on their own talent, the importance of their position, the depth at certain positions, and the strengths and weaknesses of the team.
Did you miss the first eight in this series? No problem:
No. 12 was freshman receiver Terry Godwin.
No. 11 was senior kicker Marshall Morgan.
No. 10 was the inside linebacker combo of juniors Reggie Carter and Tim Kimbrough.
No. 9 was sophomore receiver and return specialist Isaiah McKenzie.
No. 8 was senior left tackle John Theus.
No. 7 was the outside linebacking trio of Jordan Jenkins, Leonard Floyd and Lorenzo Carter.
No. 6 was sophomore offensive lineman Isaiah Wynn.
No. 5 was sophomore defensive back Dominick Sanders.
And so generally the next number, according to the laws of descending order, is …
4. TRENT THOMPSON
WHY HE’S VITAL: Georgia hasn’t had a bona fide star on its defensive line in years, and this year it has questions at inside linebacker. Put it together, and up-the-gut defense is a big concern. As for the line itself, Georgia has a bunch of guys who could be solid contributors this year. Thompson is the one who projects the most as a difference-maker. That doesn’t mean someone else won’t. But Thompson’s ability to live up to the hype, and as soon as possible, is what could take Georgia’s D-line to another level.
Georgia’s defensive line has been solid the last few years, but just that. There hasn’t been a star there since John Jenkins, and even he didn’t end up an All-SEC type performer. Enter Thompson, who 247Sports tabbed as the nation’s best overall prospect. He joins a line that has several solid veterans (Sterling Bailey, Chris Mayes, James DeLoach, Josh Dawson) and other promising newcomers (Jonathan Ledbetter, Michael Barnett). The top departures from last year are Mike Thornton and Ray Drew, who were … yes, solid.
That’s the recurring theme with Georgia’s line. It’s lacked the difference-maker who other teams had to scheme around, the kind of guy who could get into the backfield a half-dozen times a game.
As a team last year Georgia averaged 5.46 tackles-for-loss, ranking 78th nationally. The year before, Georgia averaged 6.23, ranking 45th. But look at the numbers in 2012 and 2011, when Jenkins, Kwame Geathers and company were around: 6.5 TFLs-per-game in 2012 (ranked 19th in the nation), and 7.14 per game in 2011 (ranked ninth nationally.) Yes, Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree accounted for a lot of those. But some of that was the defensive line swallowing blocks and forcing the play outside. Thompson could do that, and rack up some big plays of his own.
QUOTABLE: “You’ve got to have the beef up front, on both sides of the ball,. You’ve got to have guys that can command double teams. You’ve got to have guys that can hopefully put pressure on a quarterback without having to bring blitzes and things of that nature, guys that can be stout in their run gap responsibilities and not get pushed around. It’s truly important to have the big men up front. I think we did a good job there.” – Mark Richt, speaking on signing day this year.
BEST CASE: Thompson is everything he’s expected to be, and right away. He gets a lot of snaps at the outset of the season, adjusting easily to the bigger blockers in college, and his conditioning is good. Thompson finishes with somewhere between 7-10 sacks and 15-20 TFLs. Georgia returns to the days of being in the top 10 nationally in tackles-for-loss, and, partially as a result, among the top five defenses in the country.
WORST CASE: Thompson has trouble getting on the field early in the season, with conditioning part of the reason, and his freshman season never quite lifts off. Georgia’s defensive line once again does not have a star, and while it has its good moments, it also has its leaky ones. Other teams are able to run up the gut on the Bulldogs, who don’t have Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera back there to stop them anymore, and 5-7 yard runs , bad enough as it is, become much longer.
FINAL WORD: Stardom is widely expected for Thompson. The question is whether it will happen this year. Keep an eye and ear out for early in the preseason to see what’s being said about Thompson’s conditioning and adjustment to college. If he’s already a cut above, the breakout season could happen this year. If he’s just one of the guys, that either means the line as a whole will be very good … or Thompson still has a ways to go.