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…
#15 - Chidera Uzo-Dribe
The Bulldogs didn’t just lose their play caller when Dan Lanning left for Oregon following Georgia’s national championship season in 2021. With Lanning’s departure, the Bulldogs also had to replace the man who had coached outside linebackers in Athens since 2018.
Under Lanning, UGA developed stars at the Edge/OLB position... Azeez Ojulari’s talent was focused and honed by Lanning before he became a 2nd round draft pick. Adam Anderson went from a skinny pass rush specialist to a defender who could set the edge and play gap sound football under Lanning’s watch. Jermaine Johnson was coached into a guy who would become a first round pick after a season at FSU. People close to the program said he was the best player on the team the moment he stepped foot on campus… The list of Lanning success stories is a long one.
Lanning wasn’t just developing stars but he got them to Georgia too. Lanning was the primary recruiter for Nolan Smith and coached him into a player who will be a first round pick this week. He also had a big hand in landing many highly rated players at other positions. Five-star prospects like Malaki Starks, Nakobe Dean, Brock Vandagriff, Nakobe Dean, and Marvin Jones Jr. were all close to Lanning before signing with the Bulldogs.
Kirby Smart took his time finding Lanning’s replacement. The hire was an important one for his program and the coach he brought in would have to be the right fit. Wanna coach OLB’s at Georgia for Kirby Smart? These are a few of the boxes you have to check…
- The technical chops to teach the players in Georgia’s OLB room how to play in UGA’s defense. The Bulldogs ask a lot out of their edge defenders. They have to be able to two gap- set the edge on run plays while being able to dip inside and make a tackle in the B-Gap if necessary. A UGA OLB also has to be capable of dropping into man coverage on a RB or TE on passing plays or drop into a zone coverage assignment after lining up like they were going to rush the QB… Think about Nolan Smith’s consecutive forced turnovers against Florida in 2021. He lined up with his hand in the dirt on the end of the line and played both gaps on the first one. When UF quarterback Anthony Richardson took off downhill towards his edge, he pushed off his blocker and met him then ripped the ball out of Richardson’s hands as he fought for more yards. On the next drive, he lined up outside the box in front of a Bunch Set of UF wideouts. Richardson dropped back to pass, and Smith backpedaled 12 yards deep while moving towards the middle of the field. There he caught an interception that DE Travon Walker had tipped into the air from his own spot in UGA’s zone coverage scheme… Being able to make both of those plays requires a LOT of versatility and a great deal of skill from one position.
- Enough skill and charisma as a recruiter to ensure that UGA lands the most talented players in the country. Kirby Smart has explained his philosophy many times in the past- You can’t outscheme talent, so you better have the best players and you better have them at every position.
- A coach that is confident enough to find their voice amongst sharp defensive minds like Smart, Glenn Schumann and Will Muschamp, but also humble enough to be collaborative around experienced coaches who have a proven way of doing things and have produced some of the most efficient defenses in college football’s modern era.
After an extensive search, Smart tabbed Chidera Uzo-Diribe from TCU to coach the OLB’s at UGA. Not even 30 years old, his name was previously unknown to many.
Uzo-Diribe starred for Colorado as a player. His 17 sacks are sixth in school history and his 10 forced fumbles are second. In 2013 he was on the final watch list for the Ted Hendricks Award, given annually to college football’s best defensive end.
Sources I spoke with said that Uzo-Diribe fit in well at UGA right off the bat. Veteran returning OLB’s like Nolan Smith and Robert Beal Jr. took to him almost instantly. A younger coach, Uzo-Diribe relates to his players well and his success as a player gave him instant credibility among the UGA players already in the room.
His own playing experience also gave Uzo-Diribe a leg up on understanding the challenges of playing OLB at Georgia. Some of the players who line up on the edge for the Bulldogs also line up at other spots on the defensive front depending on down and distance. Chidera coached the defensive line at SMU and TCU after spending two years as the OLB coach at Kansas. That experience is the perfect background for a guy who has to coach a position that is sometimes asked to play like a linebacker while being a defensive lineman at other moments.
On the recruiting trail, Uzo-Diribe has had as good a start as you could imagine. In just one full cycle at UGA, he signed what might be the best Edge class in program history.
- 5-Star Damon Wilson
- 5-Star Samuel M’Pemba
- 4-Star Gabe Harris
Uzo-Diribe was the primary recruiter for all three of the OLB/Edge players that UGA signed in 2023. Want to hear the scary part for other SEC programs? All three of those players were among the top 12 ranked Edge defenders in the nation. They were all among the top 65 overall players in the 2023 class as well.
Despite the recruiting success, what we saw on the field from the Georgia OLB’s might be the most impressive indicator of the success Uzo-Diribe had during his first year in Athens.
Nolan Smith was one of the unquestioned leaders of the UGA defense in 2022 and he was the best Edge that the Bulldogs had. The Dawgs will use two OLB/Edge players on obvious passing downs, but a lot of times they have just one on the field. When the chips were down, Smith was the guy who Georgia put in the game at their “Jack” position (the Jack is a standup Edge/OLB who plays the end of the line as both a primary pass rush threat and a stout run defender). When Smith wasn’t in the game, Robert Beal often was.
Georgia lost Smith for the season in the first quarter of the Florida game. Suddenly the luxury of having two experienced OLB’s to split snaps among was gone. Uzo-Diribe took backup Chaz Chambliss and made him a productive piece for the Bulldogs. His play improved weekly. True freshman Jalon Walker started fall camp as an ILB but UGA felt his skillset could help the team at OLB. By November he was solid in run defense. By January he was coming up with key pressures in the College Football Playoff.
There were times where it felt like UGA might run out of bodies at OLB, but Uzo-Diribe and the rest of Georgia’s defensive staff continued to come up with solutions. The first rule of the Kirby Smart philosophy of football is that nobody runs the ball on Georgia. Despite injuries and depth issues, the dam never broke.
In 2023, Uzo-Diribe will have a room full of young but inexperienced talent. Chaz Chambliss is healthy and had a good spring. He will definitely see significant snaps when the season opens, but UGA must develop solid players to rotate around him.
Marvin Jones Jr was a five-star who flashed when given snaps in 2022, but he was out for the spring because of an injury. Jalon Walker looked like an emerging star at the end of last season, but he was also out for the spring. The Bulldogs also lost freshman All-American Mykel Williams for spring. Williams plays across the defensive line depending on down and distance, but the OLB’s are one of the groups he trains with at times.
We know what a healthy Williams can do, but he is often playing as a true defensive end on the opposite end of the line from the OLB’s that Uzo-Diribe coaches. Georgia will need to get Walker and Jones up to speed when fall camp comes around. The Dawgs also have the intriguing talents of rising sophomore Darris Smith. His G-Day performance showed a player who isn’t quite ready to play the run in a Kirby Smart defense, but his length and athleticism could create havoc as a pass rusher.
The Dawgs also have the aforementioned trio of blue-chip recruits. All three enrolled early and each of them showed promise at different times this spring. Wilson displayed an impressive get off and the type of bend you can’t teach on some of his reps during G-Day. Harris appears most ready to play the run in UGA’s system. M’Pemba has impressed in the weight room and can fly to the football.
How do you manage all of that talent? Can UGA teach some of the talented young pass rushing talent how to two-gap well enough to play up to Smart’s standards? Where should the snaps go in key moments? All of that will be up to Uzo-Diribe.
How those questions are answered will go a long way towards determining how good this Georgia defense can be and how much havoc it can create.