ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia coach Mark Richt immediately singled out one player last week when asked whom he envisioned playing a larger role in the second half of the season.
After watching Garrison Smith play an increasingly effective role in the Bulldogs’ defensive line rotation, Richt said he expects the junior defensive end to continue his emergence as the season progresses.
“Garrison has been playing, but I think he should play more snaps,” Richt said. “For two reasons: One, to help other guys get a little bit of a rest, and that he has been productive when he’s been in there, so you feel like he probably should get a little more of a rotation than he’s getting right now.”
Developing a consistent line rotation will be key in the Bulldogs’ defensive progress down the stretch. Fatigue played a factor for the group at times late last season, so having players such as Smith and nose guard Kwame Geathers continue their steady performances of late should help take some of the pressure off of senior starters Abry Jones, John Jenkins and Cornelius Washington.
In part because of the numerous injuries sustained by members of Georgia’s defensive front, the group has not performed up to its expectations this season. Between starters Jones, Jenkins, Washington and reserves Geathers, Smith and Ray Drew, the group has combined for 0.5 sacks and seven tackles for a loss in the first six games.
Much of Smith’s first-half impact actually came in a relief role, particularly when a sprained ankle prevented Jones from playing at 100 percent in Georgia’s last two games.
“I think he’s done a tremendous job,” Jones said. “Garrison came in the year after I did and I kind of took him under my wing and just tried to teach him everything. I’m just glad to see him doing such a great job. I know when I really couldn’t play the whole Tennessee game, he really stepped in and made a lot of plays for us and just really showed the great player he was.”
Of course it came as music to Smith’s ears that his head coach recognizes the strides he made in the first half. Although he started only one game, Smith is Georgia’s second-leading tackler among defensive linemen with 20 stops.
“I didn’t expect it, but I’m happy,” Smith said. “That’s just something that makes me really happy and actually gives me motivation just to keep going hard -- that Coach Richt recognizes it and I’m glad to get noticed a little bit. That just makes me want to work harder.”
Smith playing a larger role could help, but he also recognizes they need to simply play better collectively.
“I think basically to make a long story short, we’ve got to do better. We’ve just got to improve,” Smith said. “We’ve just got to keep working, just to get better than we were last year. Sometimes you have slow starts. We’re going to be OK. We’re going to get to where we were and better.”
Teammates who line up alongside Smith said he can play a key role in that improvement, as they have observed the hard work he has put in since first emerging as a potentially dominant SEC performer last season when he was named SEC Co-Defensive Lineman of the Week after a seven-tackle performance against Georgia Tech.
“He stood out last year in the Georgia Tech game, but from Georgia Tech until now, man he’s one of those guys that you can rely on, especially for me,” Jenkins said. “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Garrison, what have we got going on right here?’ He’s making a tremendous impact.”
That Smith would be a player his fellow linemen rely on hardly came as a surprise to senior linebacker Christian Robinson. He has watched the junior work hard to become a more effective leader as an upperclassman.
“By his work ethic it’s not a surprise to me,” Robinson said. “He’s definitely pushed himself. Whether it’s in conditioning, he’s always the first one done and he’s always pushing himself. He’s gotten stronger, he’s become more vocal and all those things make him a better leader, a better guy for our defense. We have four or five guys on that defensive line that are really solid guys for us.”
Richt sees that process only continuing for the rest of this season and into the next, when Smith figures to be one of the veteran leaders of a defense that could lose eight starters in 2012.
“Garrison’s done well for us,” Richt said. “He’s been very productive. He’s been pretty stout against the run and he’s had some quarterback pressures. We think he’s an SEC-caliber D-lineman and we like what he’s doing for us, so I think he’ll just keep getting more playing time as he goes.”
SECOND-HALF BREAKOUT CANDIDATES
Garrison Smith was Georgia coach Mark Richt’s pick as a candidate for a second-half breakout. Here are some Bulldogs defensive players’ picks to enjoy a big second half this season:
Cornerback Damian Swann: “Probably Shawn Williams. I feel like Shawn hasn’t played to his ability in the first half and it comes with a lot of different things. But Shawn is one of the leaders on the team, especially on the defense and we feed off Shawn. Once Shawn gets to the old Shawn he was last year, we’re going to be fine.”
Defensive end Abry Jones: “I think Kwame [Geathers] is definitely coming along and he’s getting more and more snaps these past couple of weeks and he’s really showing what we expect out of him.”
Linebacker Christian Robinson: “I think Amarlo [Herrera]. He’s definitely done great. I think he was the leading tackler in a few games, but I really see him taking over in that when he’s in there, he’s dominant. He’s making big stops. The thing about him is he’s in the same situation I was in my redshirt sophomore year. He’s playing all the positions and I continue to do that same thing. And the fact that he’s picked up on it so much already gives us hope for not just this year, but after all of us have gone at inside linebacker, it’s going to be his show and he’s going to be the leader of that defense.”
Nose guard John Jenkins: “A couple of practices here, Ray Drew is really coming along. Ray Drew is picking up and having good practices. Mike Thornton. A lot of guys are starting to look at things a little different -- not to say that we weren’t looking at things with a positive note or being laid back, but we got hit with a storm. Now it blew over and we’re trying to fix things and play the best we can the whole second half of the season.”
Cornerback Sanders Commings: “I’d have to say [Bacarri] Rambo and [Alec] Ogletree. They had their first two games back and now I think they’re ready just to come out and make some plays, create some big turnovers for us. They’ve played well this season. They’ve done great. I know Rambo, once he gets some hands on some balls -- that’s all he did last year and I think he’ll start doing that this game and here on out. Ogletree, he’s been playing great, too. He had an opportunity to catch some picks, but he’s broken up some passes and I just hope he continues to play the way he’s playing.”
Linebacker Michael Gilliard: “This guy right here, one thing about him is he just has to learn what to do. And I’m not just saying it because he’s from Valdosta, but Josh Harvey-Clemons, he’s a player. I feel like with Josh, he just has to know what to do and I feel like that was my biggest problem when I first got to Georgia. It was just basically knowing what to do because if you don’t know what to do, you’re hesitant on the field and you’re not playing full speed. But I definitely feel like Josh is going to be a special player.”