Freshman OLBs already turning heads

ATHENS, Ga. -- From the first day he addressed reporters after a preseason practice, Georgia coach Mark Richt has done nothing but compliment true freshman outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins, James DeLoach and Josh Dawson when asked about their performances.

But perhaps nobody on the Bulldogs’ roster can better evaluate their progress than an offensive tackle who attempts to block them -- and Georgia’s starting left tackle Kenarious Gates also gives them a positive review.

“I’m very surprised. They’re stepping up really well,” Gates said. “They’re playing and we’re competing, like one-on-one, and they’re helping me with my technique and I’m helping them with their technique. So it’s really just competing and it’s not just one, not just two, it’s all of them.”

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham offered a similar evaluation, saying, “I think all three of those guys will help us some this year.”

Georgia’s freshman defensive players huddled with reporters for the first time on Thursday and some of the linebackers -- Jenkins in particular -- also seemed surprise that they were able to make such a quick impression during camp.

And yet, that group of players -- plus Josh Harvey-Clemons, whom ESPN rated as the nation’s No. 1 outside linebacker prospect for 2012 before he shifted to safety prior to camp -- came to Georgia with exactly that kind of impact in mind.

“That’s why I was telling people that I felt like Georgia was the fit for me, because the guys that I’m coming in with and the type of team that it is and the players, we basically have the same mindset and everything like that,” Harvey-Clemons said. “I feel like we’re going to really take it somewhere good, somewhere special.”

They’ve already started that process. Jenkins has impressed coaches and teammates with his Jarvis Jones-like pass-rushing potential, while Dawson has already drawn raves for his explosiveness and instincts.

“He’s got some instincts on what’s happening sometimes when maybe you necessarily haven’t gone over it, but he applies concepts and gets in the right place and he’s done a good job,” Grantham said.

DeLoach actually has lost weight, down to 262 pounds after arriving on campus at 270. His size and physicality add another dimension to the linebacking corps’ ability to defend the run.

“Working out was a big change,” DeLoach said. “I felt like I needed to lose a couple pounds to get my mobility back and my quickness back.”

Richt said he hopes the four freshmen will be able to contribute on special teams this season and each of them said they are working with various kicking team units. Of course, that’s nothing new for DeLoach, who had no choice but to play all over the field at tiny Jenkins County High School -- including at place-kicker.

“I’ll play wherever they want to put me at,” he laughed.

A week into camp, Jenkins acknowledged that he and his fellow freshmen still have a lot to learn. For instance, Richt said after Thursday’s practice that Jenkins needs to be more physical in defending the run and he agreed.

But they’ve already caught teammates’ attention with unusually strong performances for players with so little experience.

“I know I’ve seen Jordan and Dawson make some big hits at practice the first couple of plays,” Harvey-Clemons said. “They’re really working, especially Jordan being able to handle those guys as a freshman. And Josh Dawson making hits like that just coming in, I can’t wait to see what it’s going to be like the next couple of years.”

That’s the idea, Jenkins said, although he doesn’t want to wait too long to contribute. He hopes the freshman outside linebackers continue to compete at a high enough level that they make it onto the field this fall.

“As a whole, I think the linebackers are ready to compete,” Jenkins said. “We’ve been working hard all summer and we’re just ready to get ourselves known and just establish a presence that our class of linebackers is something to be recognized. We just want to get recognition, just want to work hard and prove that we’re SEC players.”