I did the offensive breakdown back in November, and man has a shit ton happened since. Some of it was wonderful (back-to-back titles), and some of it was gut wrenchingly sad. I did not know Chandler Lecroy or Devin Willock personally, but that tragedy did hit close to home for me as I'm sure it did many of you. Chandler and I were from the same small town of Toccoa, Georgia. Suffice it to say we have a lot of mutual connections despite the fact that I’m more than a decade older than her. Devin was of course a key contributor on the field for the Georgia football program that I'm highly invested in both financially and otherwise. He was a young man with NFL potential and he was a valued part of the current Georgia football brotherhood. Their loss has shaken the program, and really can't be overstated. That has nothing to do with the defensive depth chart, but I just felt I should mention it. They both deserve more of a tribute than I could write about them so I'll leave it at that.
Hours before the tragedy we litigated whether Stetson Bennett has earned the right to act like a dickhead during parades (he has), and since then he has been arrested for the horrific crime of knocking on doors after drinking a few beers. We also dove headlong back into the sophomoric DGD debate (of which I was a full participant) amidst AD Mitchell’s departure for Texas. In the months to come we'll see if any more players (or coaches) end up in the portal. Namely, whether Todd Monken heads back to the NFL.
On to the 2023 defense. My goal is to project what the defense will look like next fall. As with the post about the offense I'll make some guesses regarding post spring transfer candidates. We've already seen the first wave of transfers leave and everyone entering the NFL draft has been announced. There will undoubtedly be changes over the next few months, but as things stand now this is what we're looking at for the 2023 defense
RETURNING SNAP COUNTS
Some interesting nuggets courtesy of Josh @DawgStats Hancher, Georgia 2023 returners accounted for 7,268 defensive snaps during the 2022 championship run. That’s a 50.4% increase compared to the 4,831 defensive snaps that returned from 2021 to 2022. Not only that, but Georgia’s 2023 returners also accounted for 2,356 of the defensive snaps during the 2021 championship run.
The obvious translation here is that Georgia’s 2023 defense will be significantly more experienced headed into the opener than they were in 2022. 19 returning defenders played 100+ snaps in 2022, 12 played 200+ snaps, 8 played 400+ snaps, 5 played 600+ snaps, and 2 played over 800 snaps. Those two being first year starters Kamari Lassiter and Malaki Starks. Chew on that while we get into the breakdown.
As expected, Jalen Carter has declared for the NFL draft while Bill Norton entered the portal and already landed at Arizona. Using 704's scholarship distribution chart we find that Georgia is returning experience at all three line spots along the defensive front. Pretty much all of these players line up at multiple positions depending on game situation, defensive call, and the other personnel in the game. Additionally, Georgia often uses outside linebackers as down linemen when they go to a four man front.
That said this is how I see things shaking out. Warren Brinson and Nazir Stackhouse headline this position group when it comes to the combination of snaps played and ability to impact the game. You can list Zion Logue and Tramel Walthour in that same breath. All four will be seniors in 2023, but I expect Brinson and Stackhouse to anchor this group and step into more prominent leadership roles.
There is also the potential we see the emergence of two young superstars here. Bear Alexander and Mykel Williams are rising sophomores and both showed flashes of dominance in their true freshman seasons. Williams, for his part, led the team in sacks from his defensive end spot with 4.5 to go along with 6.5 tackles for loss. Alexander added 2 sacks of his own from the interior to go along with 2 pass deflections, which was the most among defensive linemen not named Jalen Carter.
Another name to watch on this front will be redshirt sophomore, Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins, who had an up and down season in 2022. He had a big fumble recovery against Tennessee, but it will be interesting to see which way spring practice breaks for him. He has shown in spurts that he can be an impact player, but consistency hasn't been there thus far.
Jonathan Jefferson, also a redshirt sophomore, has seen very little action during his time in Athens. This could be a make or break spring for him as well. Right on their heels will be rising sophomores such as Shone Washington, Christen Miller, and Carlton Madden. Miller will be going through his first spring practice in Athens. I didn't include the 2023 class in the offensive projections, but early enrollee, Jamaal Jarrett, will look to get a jumpstart with this group in the spring. Fellow interior lineman Jordan Hall will join Jarrett this summer as will edge players Damon Wilson, and Samuel M'Pemba.
Nobody from this group is headed to the NFL, but Trezman Marshall leaving for Alabama wasn’t on my transfer portal bingo card. It does make sense for him, a rising senior who has been plagued by injury throughout his career. Marshall was passed over on the depth chart by two younger guys, Smael Mondon Jr. and Jamon Dumas-Johnson. Joining a lesser defense in what has perhaps become the weaker division in the SEC will give Marshall a chance to showcase himself to scouts at the next level. He was probably the best pass coverage linebacker for Georgia in 2022, but I expect Mondon and Dumas-Johnson to take big steps forward next fall. They were #1 and #2 on the team in tackles as true sophomores last season.
Mondon is the freakier athlete of the two and was the higher ranked prospect, but Dumas-Johnson adjusted quicker to playing SEC football. He acquired the nickname “Pop” during his freshman season as a result of his hard hitting style of play, and he stood out among the reserves at the end of games in 2021. Pass coverage has not been a strength for him and he will likely need to take a step forward in that respect with Marshall leaving.
Rian Davis will be one to watch during the spring. Another rising senior with a history of injuries, Davis finally got a chance to play meaningful snaps in 2022. It seemed as if the coaches began to trust him more as the season progressed. With just 15 tackles on the season, his numbers don’t jump off the page, but he proved to me he belonged when he shucked off a blocker and came up with a big 4th down sack against Tennessee that essentially ended the game. He’ll have an opportunity to solidify himself in the lineup this spring.
Xavian Sorey Jr. going into his third season will be an intriguing case this spring as well. Heralded as a freak athlete, but not the most physical tackler, Sorey was the highest ranked defender in Georgia’s 2021 recruiting class (slightly ahead of Mondon), but to this point he hasn’t made his way into the rotation. He’ll have a chance to make a move this offseason, and he is also a guy who has cross trained with the outside linebackers.
Jalon Walker made his presence felt as a pass rusher during his freshman campaign and is another guy who can play both inside and outside. He was on the field for some of the most key defensive possessions for Georgia last season, specifically against Ohio State in what turned out to be Georgia’s toughest test. It shows a lot of trust to put a true freshman in those spots. EJ Lightsey is another second year player. Lightsey recorded just 3 tackles during his first season, but he also had to recover from a scary shooting incident last offseason.
As for incoming freshmen, Georgia may have signed their best inside linebacker class of the Kirby Smart era this cycle. Raylen Wilson, CJ Allen and Troy Bowles will look to hit the ground running and any one of them could turn into an immediate impact player. Allen, out of Barnesville, Georgia, joined the team during playoff prep and was praised by Smart for the looks he gave on the scout team. He and Wilson are both early enrollees and will go through spring, while Bowles will join the team this summer. Bowles is the son of Tampa Bay Buccaneers head coach, and former NFL player, Todd Bowles. If any player can compete for early playing time without participating in spring practice it might be Bowles, given the household he grew up in.
This group is losing two long time contributors in Robert Beal and Nolan Smith. Beal just finished his super senior season. After leading the team in sacks during the 2021 championship run, he never fully developed into a game changing pass rusher, but Beal provided experience and reliability to the edge of the line of scrimmage for Georgia. Meanwhile, Smith had his season cut short when he tore his pectoral muscle against Florida, but this young man was second to nobody on this roster in the leadership department. While Smith was in the running to lead the team in sacks, pass rushing was never really his strong suit either. However, the former #1 overall recruit more than made up for that as an elite run stopper who made big plays in big games (see Florida 2021). The lasting memory I will have of Smith is his sack against Bryce Young that ended the 2021 national championship game. Smith will be on an NFL roster next season, it’s just a matter of where he gets drafted, and I believe Beal will get a shot in the league as well.
Rising senior MJ Sherman (aka not Will Anderson, thanks Dan Lanning) had yet to make an impact on the field in his three seasons, and he wasn’t expected to be more than a special teams player going forward, as such he has transferred to Nebraska. That makes Chaz Chambliss the elder statesman at this position. Chambliss will be a junior in 2023. He took his lumps when he stepped in to replace the injured Nolan Smith, but as the season progressed it became clear that the coaches trusted him. There are more talented players behind him, but I believe his big game experience will allow Chambliss to remain a part of the rotation even if he gets passed over as a starter.
NFL legacy, Marvin Jones Jr. will have an opportunity to make strides this spring. Jones was another true freshman who was on the field in 2022 during big moments for his pass rushing ability. Another rising sophomore, Darris Smith, is a freak athlete in his own right. He showed off his vertical leap on the Ohio State game sealing missed field goal. If the kick was straight there is a good chance Smith could have gotten a hand on it. I personally watched him smoke kids half his size in the 400 meters at the GHSA track and field state championships, for which he came in first place at 6’6, 230 lbs. Elite recruit, Gabe Harris, will also be joining this group as an early enrollee this spring. And as previously stated don’t be surprised if Jalon Walker or Xavian Sorey end up contributing here.
The loss of Chris Smith here can’t be overstated. He might not flash at a combine, but his ability to find the football and make plays were irreplaceable during Georgia’s back-to-back championship runs. A 5th year senior, Smith outlasted several more highly ranked guys before finally winning the starting job, and I expect we will see him on an NFL roster this fall.
Dan Jackson should be back healthy soon. Jackson had his 2022 season cut short after an October foot injury required surgery. Jackson, a heavy hitting walk-on out of Gainesville, Georgia, isn’t on 704’s scholarship count, but he is a key contributor in the defensive backfield. In 2021 I felt he was a liability when Georgia faced elite passing attacks like Alabama, but he was beginning to win me over in that respect last fall. Jackson showed notable progression in Columbia, when he ripped an interception away from a South Carolina receiver.
When you’re talking about elite talent on Georgia’s defense, Malaki Starks is at the top of that list. There aren’t many true freshmen who can come in and start at safety (or any position) for a defending national championship program, but Starks did just that. His interception in the opener against Oregon was one of the most memorable plays of the 2022 season. He did have some costly coverage busts as the season progressed. Those will need to get cleaned up, but this kid is an absolute playmaker.
David Daniel-Sisavanh will be a junior. He’s a heavy hitter in his own right, but has shown a propensity to struggle in coverage. He was a spot duty reserve in 2022 and found himself playing meaningful snaps in certain packages. Former blue chip recruit, Smoke Bouie, has transferred back home to Georgia after one season at Texas A&M. The Bainbridge native is expected to be a major factor at safety.
Jacorey Thomas will be a second year player also looking to make a move in the offseason, and 2023 blue chip signee Joenel Aguero has enrolled early and will also participate this spring. I wouldn’t discount the possibility of veterans like Tykee Smith or Javon Bullard making a move from star to safety either if the staff deems it necessary. We’ll get to them in the next section.
Javon Bullard was a 2021, 3 star recruit out of Milledgeville, Georgia. He played sparingly during his 2021 freshman campaign, but since then has taken the reigns at the star position and was the defensive MVP of both the Peach Bowl and the 2022-23 National Championship Game. 2023 could be his last season in college, and as previously mentioned I wouldn’t rule out a potential move to safety.
Tykee Smith will be a senior this fall, the former All-American has struggled with injuries since arriving in Athens after transferring from West Virginia, but coaches put him on the field when he’s healthy. He was brought in as a star, but could also be a candidate at safety.
UGA legacy Marcus Washington Jr. graduated high school early and reclassified to join the 2022 class. He will have a shot to earn some playing time at star as well as on the outside at corner. 704 has 2023 defensive back signee, Justyn Rhett, listed at this position as well. Rhett won’t be with the program during spring practice so he’ll have an uphill battle to earn early playing time as a freshman. Given the sheer number of outside corners on the roster there will likely be a good deal of cross training at star.
Kelee Ringo is moving on to the NFL after a stellar career featuring various degrees of consistency. While 2022, 5 star signee, and Young Thug look alike, Jaheim (we hardly knew ye) Singletary has entered the transfer portal after just one season where he recorded no stats and only saw action in 2 games.
Rising junior, Kamari Lassiter will be the returning headliner at corner. Lassiter was one of Georgia's most consistent defensive backs in 2022 and he will look to build on that success in what will likely be his last college season. He recorded no interceptions in 2022, but he had 4 pass deflections which is second only to Malaki Starks among Georgia’s returning roster.
Across from Lassiter, sophomores, Nyland Green and Daylen Everette are the top candidates to start. It seemed that Everette had the edge on the older Green who has an additional redshirt year of experience. I believe both of these guys will play if everyone sticks around, but if Everette takes full control of the position in the spring, Green could be a transfer candidate when the portal reopens. Both of these guys have a lot of talent, and we’ve seen Kirby platoon at corner in the past. For example, Tyson Campbell, Eric Stokes and DJ Daniel in 2020.
Julian Humphrey has been thought to be a portal candidate as well, but as a highly ranked 4 star recruit the coaches have worked to keep him engaged with the program. The staff really seems to like his potential. All that could be a moot point if 5 star early enrollee AJ Harris is as good as advertised. Scouts are projecting him to be an immediate impact player. It’ll be a tough task on this roster, but I’ll take their word for it. He’ll have a head start on fellow signees Chris Peal, Kyron Jones, and Daniel Harris who will join the program this summer.
Overall you have to like where this defensive unit stands as they head into the 2023 season. We haven’t been hearing much with regard to anyone on staff leaving so I expect everyone to get a nice pay bump at some point in the near future. Everyone knows Kirby Smart is running this show, but veteran coordinator Will Muschamp and rising star Glenn Schumann deserve their due as well. As do position coaches, Tray Scott, Chidera Uzo-Diribe, and Fran Brown. Winning three consecutive titles seems like an impossible task, but Georgia will be favored to do just that come August.
Edited by Craig Lawson