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June 7, 2012

Top Bulldog 'Backer Corps

Including (from L to R) Alec Ogletree, Jarvis Jones, and
Cornelius Washington, Georgia's linebacker unit of 2010
was one of the best in Bulldog history.
During the fall of 1951, a UGA English professor proposed a "three-point plan" to de-emphasis Georgia's football program.  While most Bulldog backers wondered what apparent Communist would dare try to ruin their football team, the UGA faculty actually voted 84-to-72 to bring the issue "into the limelight," seeking the attention of the school's President, the Board of Regents, the SEC, and NCAA.

The faculty's three-point football plan requested: 1) to abolish spring practice; 2) to shorten the season by eliminating postseason play in bowl games; 3) and, curiously, to reduce scholarships by eliminating head coach Wally Butts' two-platoon system.

Although it was not fully implemented at Georgia until the mid-1960s, the two-platoon system, where the players on one side of the football don't all necessarily play on the other side as well, was first experimented with by the Bulldogs in the late-1940s.  A two-platoon system in place obviously involved the use of more players, which meant more athletic scholarships were granted, implying that the school was to receive less money. 

When more teams began utilizing the passing game by the 1940s, the two-platoon system began to take shape.  Whereas before, two defenders too small to be defensive lineman -- usually the offense's starting fullback and the smallest starting offensive lineman -- would crowd along the defensive line between any gaps.  By dropping back a few yards behind the line, these two players were eventually transformed into "specialized" defenders who often did not play on offense.  The "linebacker" position was introduced, which at Georgia, just so happened to transpire around the time of the school's three-point plan. 

When the 1951 Bulldogs were alerted to the de-emphasis proposal, an unidentified linebacker declared, "I wouldn't have a chance to play if it weren't for [the two-platoon] system."  "Just think," said another linebacker, "some players who excel on defense and aren't very good on offense wouldn't have a chance to play.  That would be wasted talent."

Historically, when it comes to the linebacker position, Georgia doesn't have the reputation of a Penn State, USC, or Miami (Fla) -- schools which have been known by the moniker of "Linebacker U." However, since the establishment of the position, the Bulldogs have certainly had their share of reputable linebacking corps, with evidently, the very best soon to come in 2012.

After I noticed where Phil Steele ranked Georgia's linebackers as the best in the nation in his preview magazine, I began considering the top Bulldog linebacker units of all time.  Last season's group was tremendous, but in my opinion, there have been a handful of others a little better; however, they may all pale in comparison to what we'll first witness three months from now.

Whether the Bulldogs featured a two-, three-, or four-linebacker set, I present Georgia's top linebacking units in history based on the players' performances as a collective group, even considering the top reserves of each unit.

By the way, unless you've been hiding under a rock for the past 60-plus years, you are fully aware that UGA's three-point plan of 1951, and its faculty's quest to become Duke University-like, apparently never materialized.  And with that, the defensive position that evidently just avoided becoming "wasted talent"  instead has gone on to feature some of the best Bulldog players in history.

#10 - 1999
Starters: Boss Bailey, Orantes Grant, Kendrell Bell
Top Reserves: Will Witherspoon, Tony Gilbert, Jessie Miller
Featuring the likes of Bailey, Grant, Bell, Witherspoon, and Gilbert, the '99 linebacker unit was seemingly an impressive group more so on name recognition than performance.  However, although Georgia's overall defense that year was somewhat dreadful (coordinated by one-hit waste Kevin Ramsey), the linebacking corps spearheaded a run defense that allowed just 103.9 yards per game and 3.2 yards per rush.

#9 - 1988
Starters: Mo Lewis, Richard Tardits, Terrie Webster, Demetrius Douglas
Top Reserves: Aaron Chubb, Brent Collins, Norman Cowins, Mike Guthrie
With Georgia's move from its long-standing "Split 60" defense to the "Multiple 7" in 1988, the Bulldogs went from a two- to a four-linebacker set.  Standout John Brantley, or "Rambo," had departed but Webster, or "Rambro," returned.  Also, Tardits, "the Biarritz Blitz," was moved from defensive end to outside linebacker while inexperienced Lewis would eventually become a star.  Similarly to 1999, the '88 defense might have been poor defending the pass but it was staunch against the run.  For the year, the Bulldogs yielded a scoring average of less than 17 points, allowed only seven rushing touchdowns, and held six of 11 opponents to less than 100 yards rushing.    

#8 - 1958
Starters: Dave Lloyd, Theron Sapp
Top Reserves: Phil Ashe, Cicero Lucas
Although the Bulldogs of '58 finished with a 4-6 losing record, their defense, particularly the linebacking unit, was outstanding.  Lloyd was talented enough to be the 47th overall pick of the 1959 NFL Draft with one year remaining of eligibility.  For all the attention Sapp's "drought-breaking" touchdown against Georgia Tech in 1957 has earned, often forgotten is how good the famed fullback was on defense.  Ashe would eventually become one of the "most fierce" linebackers in Bulldog history, while the talented Lucas was moved to the position after being an All-SEC guard the season before.

#7 - 1971
Starters: Chip Wisdom, Steve Kitchens
Top Reserves: Steve Sleek, George Pilcher, Tommy Couch
Wisdom was the first Bulldog to be recognized as an All-SEC linebacker for three seasons; Kitchens earned honorable mention All-SEC in 1971.  Together, defensive coordinator Erk Russell said the combination was  "as good a pair of linebackers as Georgia has had..."  For eight consecutive games during the regular season, the unit was a primary reason Georgia yielded only 28 combined points.  Ranking 6th, 7th, and 9th in the nation in rushing defense, scoring defense, and total defense, respectively, Georgia's '71 defense is arguably the best in school history. 

#6 - 2011
Starters: Jarvis Jones, Michael Gilliard, Amarlo Herrera, Alec Ogletree
Top Reserves: Christian Robinson, Kosta Vavlas, Cornelius Washington, Chase Vasser
Remarkably, last year's unit had lost All-SEC performers Justin Houston and Akeem Dent from the year before and none of the four starters were regulars at linebacker in 2010; regardless, the 2011 linebacking corps would turn out to be one of the greatest in Bulldog history.  Transfer Jones became only the third Georgia linebacker to earn first-team All-American honors and was the first ever consensus All-American.  Only two previous Bulldog teams had finished better in the nation in total defense than the 2011 defense's No. 5 ranking.  Better yet, all of the linebackers listed above return in 2012, plus the unit adds freshman Josh Harvey-Clemons, who is considered by many as the top incoming linebacker in all of college football. 

#5 - 1980
Starters: Nate Taylor, Frank Ros
Top Reserves: Will Forts, Tommy Thurson
Georgia's 1980 national championship defense featured four AP or UPI first-team All-SEC members: two lineman, two defensive backs, and NO linebackers.  Nevertheless, what team captain Ros and sophomore Taylor, the "Ty Ty Termite," lacked in notoriety, the duo more than made up for it in leadership and tenacious play.  Tallying more than 100 each, Taylor and Ros were the top two tacklers on the team while sophomore Forts and freshman Thurson proved to be young, valuable reserves, combining to record 84 tackles.
Featuring Butler (back), No. 42 Godfrey, and No. 48
Clemons, the '92 linebacking corps plays in its final
game together in a postseason victory over Ohio State.

#4 - 1992
Starters: Mitch Davis, Randall Godfrey, Charlie Clemons, Carlo Butler
Top Reserves: Damon Ward, Torrey Evans, Phillip Daniels, Travis Jones, Whit Marshall

With the losses of standouts Dwayne Simmons and John Allen, and Greg Jackson's move to defensive tackle, Georgia's linebacking corps entered the 1992 season as perhaps the "most depleted" unit on the squad and "where some immediate help is essential."  Featuring unanimous All-SEC performer Davis, freshman phenom Godfrey -- the SEC's defensive freshman of the year -- and a number of reserves that would have started for most any other team,  the Bulldogs had a myriad of "help" at the position.  The group was the main reason why Georgia was 6th in the nation in scoring defense -- the only Bulldog team in nearly a two-decade period (1984-2001) to finish in the category's top 10.  

#3 - 1976
Starters: Jeff Lewis, Ben Zambiasi, Jim Griffith 
Top Reserves: Ricky McBride, Ben Cescutti
After being a part of Georgia's acclaimed "Junkyard Dog" defense, the Bulldogs' linebackers of 1976 entered the season considered the team's strongest unit.  Ironically, Zambiasi had arrived at UGA as a fullback, Lewis was a converted nose guard, and Griffith was a former walk-on.  Regardless,  the starting ragtag group would combine for 334 tackles, finishing 1-2-3 on the team in total stops.  Zambiasi became the first Georgia linebacker ever to earn first-team All-American recognition, while reserve McBride would be an All-SEC performer two years later.  The small, but quick and feisty unit headed a defense that ranked 1st in the SEC and 7th in the nation in scoring defense.

#2 - 2002
Starters: Boss Bailey, Tony Gilbert, Chris Clemons
Top Reserves: Thomas Davis, Tony Taylor, Derrick Holloway, Arnold Harrison
Of the approximately 30 Georgia linebackers ever to play in the NFL, SIX were part of the 2002 Bulldog linebacking unit (all players listed above except Holloway).  Bailey became the first linebacker at the school to be a first-team All-American in 26 years (since Ben Zambiasi in 1976).  All-SEC performer Gilbert became the first Bulldog since Zambiasi to lead the team in total tackles for three straight seasons.  Likely Georgia's most talented linebacking corps of all time spurred a defense which ranked 4th in the nation in scoring, while helping a team capture its first SEC title in 20 years. 

#1 - 1983
Starters: Tommy Thurson, Knox Culpepper
Top Reserves: Bill Mitchell, Steve Boswell
Thurson and Culpepper would not play in the NFL, nor did any other linebacker from the '83 Cotton Bowl championship team, for that matter.  Nevertheless, the two not only started on arguably the all-time best linebacker unit at Georgia, but are perhaps the top two players at the position in the school's history.  Combining to record a staggering 301 tackles, the duo hardly needed to be relieved.  Although Mitchell and Boswell would eventually become standouts in their own right, the reserves combined to play in only 13 games and make 31 tackles.  Thurson and Culpepper, both of whom earned 1st- or 2nd-team All-SEC honors in '83, finished their Bulldog careers as the 2nd and 4th, respectively, all-time tacklers in school history.  Georgia's celebrated defense of 1983, which would often bend, but rarely break, is still considered one of the best ever at UGA.  And besides perhaps roverback Terry Hoage, there was likely no one more important to the Bulldogs on that defense than linebacker Thurson, or Culpepper, take your pick.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

pat- good piece as usual. i like youer top 10 - disagree with some of the placement - but like the seasons. i had forgotten about a lot of those dawgs you mentioned. thanks for the memories and jogging my memory! chuck