(Part 8 of a 14-part SEC preview series)
Returning 10 defensive starters, the Georgia Bulldogs appear poised to challenge Florida for SEC East supremacy.
After a disappointing start under first-year head coach Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs (8-5, 4-4) rebounded to win four of the last five, highlighted by a 31-23 AutoZone Liberty Bowl victory over TCU.
Georgia's defense ranked 35th nationally in scoring (24 points per game), 36th against the run (143.7 yards per game), 16th against the pass (183.8 ypg) and 16th in total defense (327.5)
Minus only one starter, the Bulldogs should again be stout on the defensive side.
Junior Roquan Smith (95 tackles, 5 tackles for loss), the team's top tackler the past two seasons, heads up a deep and experienced linebacker contingent. Smith is joined in the first group by junior Natrez Patrick (59 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 1 sack), senior Davin Bellamy (51 tackles, 9 TFL, 5 sacks, 17 quarterback hurries) and senior Lorenzo Carter, (44 tackles, 6 TFL, 5 sacks, 13 QB hurries).
All four regulars return in the secondary, as well, in junior cornerback DeAndre Baker (31 tackles, 2 interceptions), senior cornerback Aaron Davis (54 tackles, 4 TFL, 1.5 sacks, 2 INTs), senior strong safety Malkom Parrish (49 tackles, 2 INTs) and senior free safety Dominick Sanders (34 tackles, 3 INTs). Sanders was a first-team All-SEC selection after intercepting six passes in 2015, but was hampered by a shoulder injury last fall. Five-star free safety signee Richard LeCounte III will get a long look in preseason camp.
Junior tackle Trenton Thompson (56 tackles, 4.5 TFL, 5 sacks) leads the defensive front after logging three sacks en route to earning Liberty Bowl MVP honors. Senior John Atkins (22 tackles, 1.5 TFL) and sophomore Julian Rochester (36 tackles, 2 TFL, 2 sacks) share time at nose guard.
Junior end Jonathan Ledbetter (45 tackles, 2.5 tackles for loss, 1 sack) moves into a full-time starting role. Ledbetter appeared in seven games last season, starting four.
Georgia is looking for more offensive production after racking 102nd in scoring (24.5 ppg), 50th in rushing (191.2 ypg), 97th in passing (193.5 ypg) and 87th in total offense (384.7 ypg).
Jacob Eason started 12 games at quarterback as a true freshman, passing for 2,430 yards with 16 touchdowns against eight interceptions. True freshman Jake Fromm, a four-star prospect, is pushing Eason for playing time.
Seniors Nick Chubb (224 carries, 1,130 yards, 8 TDs) and Sony Michel (152-840-4; 22 receptions, 149 yards, 1 TD) spearhead the running game, along with sophomore Brian Herrien (63-363-3).
Junior wide receiver Terry Godwin (38 receptions, 387 yards) is back, along with sophomore tight end Issac Nauta (29-361-3). Others in the mix at wide receiver, are junior Michael Chigbu (9-88), a former New Orleans Holy Cross standout, senior Javon Wims (17-190-1), junior Jayson Stanley, sophomore Riley Ridley (12-238) and true freshman Jeremiah Holloman.
Georgia goes into camp with an unsettled offensive line following the departure of three starters, including right tackle Greg Pyke. Senior left tackle Isaiah Wynn, who started all 13 games last season, and junior center Lamont Gaillard, are the holdovers.
Both kicking specialists return in sophomores Rodrigo Blankenship and Marshall Long. Blankenship was 14-for-18 on field goals with a long of 49, and a perfect on 26 PATs. Long punted 49 times for a 38.7-yard norm.
Isaiah McKenzie, the team's leading receiver and return specialist, will be hard to replace. McKenzie accounted for 10 touchdowns (7 receiving, 2 rushing, 1 punt return).
2017 GEORGIA SCHEDULE
(All Times Central)
DATE OPPONENT TIME
Sept. 2 Appalachian State 5:15 p.m.
Sept. 9 at Notre Dame 6:30 p.m.
Sept. 16 Samford TBA
Sept. 23 Mississippi State* TBA
Sept. 30 at Tennessee* TBA
Oct. 7 at Vanderbilt* TBA
Oct. 14 Missouri* TBA
Oct. 28 vs. Florida* (at Jacksonville) 2:30 p.m.
Nov. 4 South Carolina* TBA
Nov. 11 at Auburn* TBA
Nov. 18 Kentucky* TBA
Nov. 25 at Georgia Tech TBA