Seven months after Georgia’s 2002 SEC championship season, one individual honor stands as the most unlikely — and, therefore, perhaps most impressive.
How did David Pollack, a sophomore in his first season at defensive end, make such an impact that he rose above the league’s star quarterbacks and running backs to be named by coaches as Player of the Year in the Southeastern Conference?
Entering the 2002 season, Pollack would have barely merited all-star mention on his own team, much less among the league’s stars.
Georgia linebackers Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert, defensive tackle Johnathan Sullivan, receiver Terrence Edwards and quarterback David Greene all were far more established as top players in the conference.
Pollack? He was a former Shiloh High School fullback who was considered a surprise just to earn playing time at defensive tackle as a true freshman in 2001. He struggled so much initially in his move to defensive end in the 2002 spring practice that there was no guarantee he would hold a starting job.
Pollack did far more than just start. He was so relentless and dominant as a pass-rusher and play-maker that he became the first defensive player in 14 years to be named Player of the Year by the SEC coaches. In the last 34 years, the only other defensive players to earn that honor were Reggie White (1983), Cornelius Bennett (1986) and Tracy Rocker (1988).
Now, as Georgia prepares to open practice Monday, the challenge for Pollack is the same as the challenge for his team: Do it again.
It won’t be easy. In leading the SEC and setting a Georgia record with 14 quarterback sacks last year, Pollack had the benefit of playing beside Sullivan, who often drew extra attention of offensive linemen, and playing in front of Bailey and Gilbert.
This year, Georgia must replace Sullivan at defensive tackle and must also find new starters at each of its three linebacker spots. Pollack faces a greater probability of being targeted for constant double-teams in blocking schemes.
Pollack won’t be a surprise this year. Every team formulating a game plan for Georgia will spend extra time talking about how to block No. 47. It would be a surprise if Pollack approaches his 2002 statistics. Then again, how could he be a bigger surprise than last year?
“I wouldn’t have predicted David Pollack could be the Player of the Year in our league,’’ said Georgia coach Mark Richt this week. “I would have predicted that whoever had to line up against him would have a long day because of how hard he plays and how long he plays hard.’’
Added Richt: “It’ll be interesting to see if his statistics will be the same, but I know for sure his effort will be the same.’’
Pollack already has heard a lot of talk about how he will be the focus of more special blocking schemes this year. He says Georgia has no shortage of other defensive players who can make offenses pay for placing two blockers on Pollack.
“We’ve got 10 other guys who are as capable or probably more capable than me in making plays,’’ Pollack said. “You can’t double-team me and leave them open.’’
Despite the loss of Sulllivan, the No. 6 pick in this year’s NFL draft, Georgia’s defensive line should be a strength of the team.
Tackles Darrius Swain, Ken Veal and Kedric Golston and ends Will Thompson and Robert Geathers could benefit from extra attention paid to Pollack. A surprise impact could come from a redshirt freshman such as tackle Ray Gant or ends Marcus Jackson and Marquis Elmore.
There is good depth across the defensive front, but Pollack is the established star.
Pollack does more than dominate games. He is such a force on the practice fields that Richt had to hold him out of spring scrimmages out of the fear that Pollack would overwhelm Georgia’s young offensive linemen and completely disrupt anything the offensive coaches were trying to accomplish.
Even if Pollack does not match his 2002 stats, it is reasonable to expect he can be a better player. He is entering only his third college season and only his second year at defensive end.
“There’s a million things I can improve on,’’ Pollack told reporters this week at SEC media days.