More and more, Curran noticed, he was one of only two linebackers on the field rather than the traditional three. The strong side linebacker, called the Sam linebacker by the Bulldogs, was nowhere to be found, unless Curran looked to the sideline.
“I noticed that we didn’t use the Sam as much, especially against Florida,” Curran said. “That was one of the reasons I even got to play, we brought the Sam out, and I got the opportunity to come in in a different type of defense.”
Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Willie Martinez noticed the trend before Curran and began to plan for it.
“In our league, more and more people are spreading out (on offense), and I think it’s happening pretty much around the nation,” Richt said. “The more (offenses) spread, the less (defenses) play their Sam linebacker. You could play Sam and play a certain team and play maybe 15 snaps or something. And then if you have two Sams who are ready to play, you are splitting time like that.”
When offenses spread out their formation, defenses have to replace the Sam linebacker with a defensive back, a player who is expected to be faster and better in pass coverage. With a linebacker in the game against a spread offense, Martinez said, quarterbacks and offensive coordinators know the defense will be playing zone defense, giving the offense an advantage.
“They know a linebacker is not going to play man (coverage),” Martinez said. “He’s going to play zone.”
So as the spread offense pops up more and more on Georgia’s schedule – first-year offensive coordinator Tony Franklin is bringing the spread to Auburn this year – Richt and Martinez have been trying to figure out what to do with their strong side linebackers.
The solution? Make sure they can do something else. That’s one of the reasons redshirt freshman Justin Houston was moved from strong side linebacker to defensive end and the main reason Sam linebackers Akeem Dent and Darius Dewberry are learning the middle linebacker and weak side linebacker positions.
“I didn’t really realize that,” Dent said.
Houston is glad he’s no longer playing a position in such flux, he said.
“The last couple of games last season we only used one Sam, and he barely played,” Houston said. “I see now the Sams that we did have are working more at inside.”
Dent and Dewberry shouldn’t worry their preferred position will be phased out, Richt said, but they should understand it is changing. From now on, the coach said, Georgia’s strong side linebackers will have to be able to either play defensive end in passing situations or play more than one linebacker spot to ensure themselves playing time.
“You are going to see us more and more where that guy is a jack of all trades,” Martinez said. “No doubt – it’s a special kind of guy. You want the strength, you want the power, you want the size, but, at the same time, you don’t want that out there in space, trying to defend the spread.”
NOTE: Georgia released the salary increases for its assistant coaches this week. Defensive ends coach Jon Fabris received a 10 percent raise, the biggest percentage of the group. Here are the updated salaries: defensive coordinator Willie Martinez ($310,300), offensive coordinator Mike Bobo ($267,500), defensive line coach and recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner ($253,301), offensive line coach Stacey Searels ($235,400), Fabris ($192,610), wide receivers coach John Eason ($187,908), running backs coach Tony Ball ($157,600), tight ends coach John Lilly ($157,600) and linebackers coach John Jancek ($151,539).