Coach Mark Richt kicked two players who could have started -- Derrick White and Josh Johnson -- off the team during the dog days of summer. Still, it seemed a recruiting class with four linebackers would help fill that void. Then two of those didn’t qualify and another was lost for the season to a knee injury.
When the dust settled, the Bulldogs were left with these seven, all of them have something to prove. Two of them have never played a collegiate game and only three of them have more than 11 career tackles. As a group, they’ve averaged 13 games played and 37 tackles.
Class: Redshirt freshman
Size: 6-foot-1, 228 pounds
Strength (Bench, squat, clean): 365, 605, 331
Pedigree: At Richmond County High School in Hamlet, N.C., Ellerbe made 289 tackles in his final two years. He was an all-state player and the defensive MVP of the North Carolina-South Carolina prep all-star game in 2003.
Can play: Weakside
Career statistics: First year
At a glance: Ellerbe is so athletic that he was at one time compared to former Bulldog Thomas Davis. He must be a freak considering he still is pushing Jackson for the starting spot at weakside linebacker despite missing more than a week of practice due to a shoulder muscle injury. “Dannell Ellerbe is close” to Jackson,” defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. “We don’t know what he can do. We’ve seen flashes in practice.” Ellerbe’s fellow linebackers call him “The Phenom,” middle linebacker Tony Taylor said. Although he’s one of the least talkative linebackers, he responds quickly when asked if he’s the fastest player in the group. “Yeah, of course.” Is it close? “Naahh.”
Size: 6-foot-2, 218 pounds
Strength: 365, 445, 265
Pedigree: Jackson wasn’t one of the Bulldogs’ high profile recruits when he came out of Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, but he was a standout in metro Atlanta. Scout.com named him one of the Top 50 players in the state in 2002.
Can play: Weakside and middle
Career statistics: 5 starts, 56 tackles, 1 sack
At a glance: Quietly, Jackson has gone from an afterthought to perhaps the Bulldogs’ best at this position. “I like Jarvis Jackson,” Taylor said. “He’s going to be one our best linebackers ever here. I think he’s going to shock a lot of people.” Jackson missed all of spring practice and the first two weeks of contact in the fall, but immediately went into the starting lineup when he was cleared to go full speed. “Jarvis is a better athlete than people give him credit for,” Coach Mark Richt said. “He a quick twitch guy who can really see something and go get it. He’s going to run through some people.” He’s the biggest hitter in the group, according to Taylor.
Size: 6-foot-4, 248 pounds
Strength : 425, 455, 309
Pedigree: Miller, who played at Miller County High School, was the one of the biggest prize’s of the 2003 recruiting class. Scout.com called him the No. 1 defensive end in the country, and many other analysts agreed. He made 106 tackles and 27 catches as a senior.
Can play: Strongside
Career statistics: 0 starts, 9 tackles, 0 sacks
At a glance: Some players, particularly those as physically gifted as Miller, make an immediate impact on the collegiate level. Miller did not. He had just nine tackles in 12 games as a true freshman. This could be the year he blossoms. “He’s a guy who’s gradually getting better and better and better,” Richt said. “He’s really been improving a lot.” The difference has been confidence, Martinez said. “He has gained some confidence in himself,” Martinez said. “I think there was some doubt there. I’ve been very pleased with him.” Miller’s biggest asset may be his physical stature. He’s an imposing matchup even for an offensive linemen when he comes around the end.
Size: 5-foot-10, 230 pounds
Strength: 430, 500, 301
Pedigree: Smith took a long road to Athens, attending Gordon College in Barnesville and the Naval Academy Prep School in Rhode Island before landing at Georgia in 2001. At Mary Persons High School in Forsyth, he was honorable mention all-state as a junior and a senior.
Can play: Middle, Weakside and Strongside
Career statistics: 0 starts, 11 tackles, 0 sacks
At a glance: Smith is the darkhorse in the competition. He was only awarded a scholarship this offseason. After surprising people with how much he played in the 2002 season, he has been sidelined for all but a handful of games in the last two years due to injuries ranging from ankle to toe to back. He’s healthy now and back at linebacker after a brief change to fullback, and he is one of just two linebackers who can play all three spots for the Bulldogs. If Georgia suffers any injuries at this position, Smith will find himself with a lot of playing time. “Jamario is big for us right now,” linebackers coach John Jancek said.
Size: 6-foot-1, 237 pounds
Strength: 440, 550, 341
Pedigree: Taylor was named Class AAAA all-state in his final two seasons at Oconee County High School, where he also was a two-year starter in basketball and an all-area goalie for the soccer team. He scored 22 touchdowns (16 rushing, four on defense, two receiving) as a senior.
Can play: Middle and Weakside
Career statistics: 13 starts, 120 tackles, 1 sack
At a glance: Taylor was on the verge of being a star as an outside linebacker when he tore the ACL in his right knee during the annual spring game last year. He missed all of 2004 and found himself in a new position when he returned. Along with having to put on some weight -- he’s playing at 234 this year rather than the 225 he weighed in 2003 -- Taylor will have to be more vocal in his new position since the middle linebacker carries most of the responsibility for making calls before the snap. Taylor said he feels comfortable with the added responsibilities. “It’s not a big transition,” Jancek said. “Tony is very smart. I’m very confident in his knowledge of the game. I don’t think it’ll be a problem at all.”
Danny Verdun Wheeler
Size: 6-foot-2, 244 pounds
Strength: 405, 585, 326
Pedigree: Verdun Wheeler led his team in tackles for three straight seasons at Thomson High School. He was named the Class AAAA defensive player of the year as a senior and had 27 tackles in a playoff game his sophomore season.
Can play: Strongside, Middle and Weakside
Career statistics: 11 starts, 65 tackles, 1 sack
At a glance: Verdun Wheeler is the most intriguing of all the linebackers. He started nine games last year on the weakside and seemed to be the starter there again this year until he missed time due to an ankle injury and Jackson bumped him from his spot. Before Verdun Wheeler’s injury, the coaches had nothing but good things to say about him. “He’s really ready to play in my opinion,” Richt said. “I’m excited about how he’s ready to produce for us.” He was moved from the weakside to the strongside, and Jancek suggested his experience might help him overtake Miller for that starting job. That hasn’t happened yet, though. In the end, Verdun Wheeler may be hurt by his versatility. He can be a super sub for the Dogs since he can play all three positions.
Size: 6-feet, 245 pounds
Strength: 385, 500, 301
Pedigree: In a class of linebackers that originally included Darius Dewberry, Jamar Chaney and Tavares Kearney, Washington hardly got any attention when he signed this year out of Burke County High School. Still, he was a Class AAA all-state player and named to his area’s all-star team three years running.
Can play: Middle
Career statistics: First year
At a glance: Dewberry and Chaney never made it to Athens, and Kearney’s season was ended by a knee injury. Luckily for the Dogs, it looks like Washington might be the best of the bunch anyway. “Nobody never really did talk about me, but that’s the beauty of it, come in and sneak under the radar and then shock the world,” Washington said. “Recruiting is all lights and cameras anyway, and after recruiting is over with, it‘s over with and it’s all about what happens on the field.” Washington was physically ready to compete from the day he stepped on campus, and he has learned the system well enough to be the top backup in the middle. “Marcus Washington is a football player, period,” Jancek said.