Returning defenders ready for bigger roles

ATHENS, Ga. -- When Georgia’s seniors lingered on the field to accept the Governor’s Cup from Gov. Nathan Deal after beating Georgia Tech, reality began to sink in for Amarlo Herrera.

Looking around the half-empty dressing room, the sophomore linebacker realized how many of his veteran defensive teammates won’t be around the next time the Bulldogs take the field at Sanford Stadium.

“We saw that when they weren’t in the locker room, when they were out on the field,” Herrera said about the moments after the 42-10 win last month.

Six of Georgia’s defensive starters and eight players on the two-deep depth chart in last Saturday’s SEC championship game were seniors. Plus, junior linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree are projected as first-round NFL draft picks should they decide to forgo their final season of eligibility, and junior nose guard Kwame Geathers also could be drafted, should he leave school early.

Experienced players like Herrera, junior defensive end Garrison Smith and sophomore cornerback Damian Swann will be the cornerstones of Georgia’s effort to reload next season regardless -- but they become even more important if the draft-eligible prospects make the leap to the NFL.

“I think about it all the time when I see all these seniors on this defense,” said Smith, who leads Georgia’s defensive line in tackles with 55. “I’m ready for the responsibility when I have to step up.”

Smith joined the starting lineup when another senior, preseason All-SEC selection Abry Jones, was lost for the season with an ankle injury. Herrera has already started 16 games in two seasons and is fourth on the team with 67 tackles. And Swann took over for Brandon Boykin at cornerback this season and started all 13 games, emerging as one of the Bulldogs’ top playmakers in the secondary.

“It’s not surprising to me,” Swann said of his changing role in the secondary, going from one of the youngsters to its most experienced player once seniors Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings and Branden Smith leave for the pros. “I knew the time would come eventually and I think the position I was put in this year is going to prepare me for next year and being one of those guys.”

Herrera shared similar thoughts concerning his job at linebacker. The sophomore earned his first start in the second game of his college career. He shared time at inside linebacker with seniors Michael Gilliard and Christian Robinson through the past two seasons and is one of the team’s most reliable tacklers, but his importance will only increase in 2013.

“I feel like I’m a leader anyway in some sense because I call the D when I’m out there,” Herrera said.

Herrera’s ability to set the defense will obviously come in handy next season when so many Bulldogs play increased roles. They lose key seniors at every level -- John Jenkins, Abry Jones and Cornelius Washington on the defensive line, Gilliard and Robinson at linebacker and the aforementioned four players in the secondary -- at a minimum. Early NFL entries would create further attrition.

That will place significant responsibilities on the returning starters -- as well as players including freshman outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and junior outside linebacker Chase Vasser who have on-field experience -- to lead in some form or fashion.

“I don’t like to do a lot of talking,” Garrison Smith said. “I try to lead by example because I feel like vocal leaders, if they’re not performing you can’t really respect them. So that’s why I don’t do a lot of talking. I’m not a rah-rah guy. I try to just keep my mouth shut and let my actions speak for themselves.”