23 For 2023 - The 23 People Who Will Have the Biggest Impact on UGA Football’s Success as it Pursues a Three-Peat
“Who would you rank as the coaches most important to UGA’s success?”
That question was recently posed to me by a DawgsCentral subscriber in response to a piece of intel that I posted on our forum. I started to type out a response, but a couple sentences in I realized that the answer to the question is quite complex. To make such a list, one must make broad value judgments on what assets are most important to a modern college football program.
When thinking about the answer I also found myself thinking about an old football cliche… "It's not the X's and the O's but the Jimmys and the Joes." That got me considering the players who will suit up on gamedays for Georgia next fall. Good gameplans and great play calls are key to any team’s success, but they are usually only as good as the personnel executing them.
With that in mind, I decided to broaden the scope of these rankings beyond just members of the coaching staff. As I go through this list I will touch on every position room and virtually every facet of the Georgia Football program. In that way, it will serve as both my version of a spring practice preview and a look at the state of the program.
So without further adieu, here are the 23 people most crucial to UGA’s success in the year 2023. Whether or not Georgia is able to win a third straight championship, and how they go about trying to do it, will be largely influenced by the roles these individuals play…
#16 - Jalon Walker
Flashback to the fourth quarter of UGA’s win over Ohio State in the College Football Playoff.
CJ Stroud and the Buckeyes were up 38-35 on the Bulldogs as the clock began to tick under 5 minutes. OSU was moving the ball and a touchdown would put the game out of reach for good.
On 2nd & 5 from the Georgia 18, Stroud dropped back to pass. Georgia rushed 5 defenders, and ILB Jamon Dumas-Johnson came free for a sack. That brought up 3rd & 17, but with the way OSU had played all night there was no guarantee that Georgia’s defense was getting off the field. Instead of playing it safe, the Bulldogs rushed 6 defenders. This time, freshman Jalon Walker came through the pass protection to force Stroud to throw the ball away.
Those two pressures forced the Buckeyes into a FG that made the score 41-35. Stetson Bennett would connect with AD Mitchell on a 10-yard touchdown pass with 54 seconds left. The extra point by Jack Podlesny gave Georgia a 42-41 lead.
Down by only a point, and blessed with plenty of offensive weapons, Ohio State had more than enough time to come down the field and win the game. Could Georgia’s defense hold Ohio State?
The Dawgs had a very rough start on the defensive side of the ball in the CFP semifinal, giving up 35 points to Ohio State in the first 35 minutes of the game. The Buckeyes had burned UGA on multiple occasions when Stroud left the pocket and rolled out towards the sideline. UGA’s secondary couldn’t cover the OSU receivers for seven and eight seconds, but that was what they were being asked to do because Georgia’s pass rush wasn’t containing Stroud.
Then something changed. Georgia switched its strategy on the fly and started bringing more and more pressure at Stroud. Suddenly the two-time Heisman Finalist was looking less comfortable. UGA’s pass rush was getting home, and the Dawgs had held OSU to 3 points since the Buckeyes first drive of the second half.
On the first play of that final drive, Stroud rolled right and a few UGA defenders tackled him for a 5-yard gain. Starting OLB Robert Beal Jr. went down in the pile. He was starting in place of injured senior Nolan Smith, and Beal had played a lot of snaps in the second half because his backup, Chaz Chambliss, had gone out of the game with an injury… UGA was running out of experience and bodies at the Edge position, and it was happening in a moment where its season depended on getting to Stroud.
On the next play, Beal came back into the game and Georgia brought 4 pass rushers. Jalon Walker almost got to Stroud but stumbled. Jalen Carter was tackled as he bull rushed past the QB. A hobbled Beal was sealed out of the play by the OSU right tackle, and Tyrion Ingram-Dawkins got upfield but was pushed out of his lane… Stroud stepped up in the pocket and took off on a 27-yard rush. OSU was in FG range with 24 seconds to go, and Georgia’s season was slipping away as 2023 drew near.
Georgia set the edge on first down and held OSU to a one-yard loss. A disguised pressure on second down allowed Malaki Starks to come free on a blitz and hit Stroud as he delivered a pass that was knocked away by Kelee Ringo. Now it was 3rd down, and Georgia needed to hold OSU to no gain if it wanted a chance to force a missed field-goal…
Jalon Walker came screaming off the left side of the defensive line and flew past a TE. He was in Stroud’s face before he could finish his drop or set his feet to throw. Stroud spun away, but he was forced to run back to midfield in order to throw the ball away.
OSU kicker Noah Ruggles had never hit a 50-yard FG before then, and he still hasn’t to this day.
The Buckeyes had two chances to put Georgia away in the last five minutes of that CFP semifinal. Jalon Walker came up with a pressure that stopped them each time.
What makes that most fascinating is that Walker wasn’t really supposed to be there. In fall camp he was working with the inside linebackers. When he arrived on Georgia’s campus it was immediately clear he could have an impact as a true freshman, but beating out veterans Smael Mondon and Jamon Dumas-Johnson proved to be too much.
Georgia started cross-training the freshman at outside linebacker instead of letting Walker go to waste on the bench. It took some time before Walker started to flash though.
In UGA’s blowouts of Oregon and Samford he played just 11 total snaps. Against South Carolina he got into the game for 7 snaps and showed that he could set the edge against the run. He was given one attempt to rush the QB and he recorded the first QB pressure of his career.
In Georgia’s win over Vanderbilt is when it first started to look like the Dawgs might have something in Walker. He recorded 4 tackles in 19 snaps and looked solid when playing snaps on the edge with the first team defense.
It also became clear that Jalon was getting a firm grasp on Georgia’s defensive scheme. When he enrolled his body looked more like what you would see from a player with a few years of service on an NFL roster than a college freshman. Still, UGA recruits a lot of freaky athletes. If you want to play early at Georgia then you have to understand your assignment and you have to understand how to execute it.
Walker’s performance against the run versus Vanderbilt was a turning point of sorts. Though he didn’t record a pressure in 8 pass rush snaps, he did show that he knew how to soundly play his gaps and set the edge. That didn’t necessarily mean he would be a good pass rusher, but it did mean he qualified for the opportunity to be one.
Georgia’s defense has standards. The biggest one of all is that nobody runs the ball on the UGA defense. Walker wasn’t going to let that happen, and that meant he could be trusted.
At 6’2” and 225 pounds, Walker is not built like a prototypical pass rusher. Despite that, he started to flash when given opportunities to rush off the edge. Against Florida he recorded 2 pressures in 4 pass rush snaps.
There was promise in Walker’s play through November, but he certainly wasn’t pegged as a player who would be coming through in the clutch in the College Football Playoff.
He only recorded 1 pressure each against Kentucky and LSU despite having 12 pass rush opportunities against both, but his assignment sound play against the run continued. That doesn’t always show on the stat sheet. Georgia had trouble setting edges at times once Nolan Smith was lost of the season, and Walker continued to look good on tape. He wasn’t being outleveraged by offensive linemen and he could be seen forcing RB’s back into the middle of the field where Mondon and Dumas-Johnson could clean them up.
During bowl practices I heard good things about Walker’s progress from sources close to the team. Against the Buckeyes he showed his progress as a blitzer. In 9 pass rush snaps he recorded 3 pressures. Two of them came in some of the game’s biggest moments.
In the National Championship, Walker announced himself on the national stage. He played 15 snaps against TCU. He made a tackle for a 2-yard loss while in pass coverage and continued his assignment sound play against the run... He also had 4 pressures and a sack in just 6 pass rush snaps.
What makes Walker so exciting for the 2023 Georgia defense is that he still possesses all of the instincts that made him one of the nation’s top inside linebackers during his prep career. His pursuit ability is superior to most edge defenders and he slides off blocks extremely well when playing the run. When you couple those traits with Walker’s pass rush ability you have an extremely versatile defender.
Walker has only played 118 snaps in his Georgia career but he already has shown plenty of versatility. In the CFP we saw him line up as an Edge player that is shaded inside the defensive end to play the run or lined up wide outside the tackle when he rushed the passer from the edge. He also played as a stand up linebacker at times, starting the play right behind UGA’s defensive linemen.
Walker is out of action this spring after having offseason shoulder surgery, but he continues to train with both the inside and outside linebackers. When he’s on the field, Walker gives Georgia a third player with inside linebacker tackling ability while also being able to rush the passer.
That can make him an interesting chess piece for a defensive mind like Glenn Schumann. Georgia can line Walker up standing in the box and let him blitz or drop into coverage. It can also put him on the edge and have him set edges and rush the quarterback. That is a headache for opposing offenses to account for.
In 2022, Walker recorded 13 pressures in just 64 pass rush snaps. That means he got to the QB on more than one in every five chances. In 2023, Walker will have a chance to emerge in a major way. He is likely to move around in the front seven of Georgia’s defense and he could become one of UGA’s most effective pass rushers.
If UGA wants to three-peat they must replace the experience and productivity of Nolan Smith and Robert Beal. Walker grew up fast last season, and he will help mentor an OLB room that is young and full of talent.
If he can play at the same level that he did in the College Football Playoff then the Bulldogs have a star on their hands.