Garrett played in eight games last season as a true freshman. He started once and made five tackles in the Homecoming game vs. Samford. He finished the season with nine total tackles, including one for lost yardage, and he also was credited with a quarterback hurry.
New defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said he wants to have at least five linebackers, and preferably six or seven, ready for prime-time action when the season starts. Based on spring drills, Garrett will be in that group, the coach noted.
"I thought for the last four or five practices he started to get a better feel," VanGorder said of the former Tucker, Ga., High School standout.
The fact Garrett is doing well for VanGorder and Tommy Thigpen, who is coaching the linebackers this year, is not a surprise. Garrett's former position coach, Ted Roof, was high on the linebacker's potential.
"He was making a lot of progress early and then he got hurt and missed a bunch of time," Roof pointed out late last season. "I think he's got the chance to be a really good football player before he's done."
Garrett's high school, Franklin Stephens, is also high on the young football player's possibilities. "Justin is a great kid who I really enjoyed coaching in high school," Stephens said. "One thing that really helped him is that he had a great role model to follow in his brother (college senior Jamoris Slaughter), who plays football at Notre Dame.
"In my opinion he has a huge upside," Stephens added. "He has tremendous speed and explosiveness and that helps make him a very physical football player. He has so much potential as a football player."
A player who was recruited by a large number of colleges as either an outside linebacker or strong safety, Garrett relies on his quickness and aggressive style of play to overcome a lack of size. Last fall he played at 6-1, 198 pounds. This spring he is up to 206.
Justin Garrett is shown in action this spring.
He performed well enough in spring practice to push Daren Bates, who happens to be a three-year starter and the team's leading tackler in 2011.
Thigpen and VanGorder also worked Garrett at the other outside linebacker spot where senior Jonathan Evans is the returning starter. With Evans missing spring drills with an injury, Garrett and redshirt freshman Kris Frost got plenty of opportunities to show the coaches what they can do.
VanGorder said there is a possibility that Garrett and Bates could line up together as the outside linebackers even though both are physically about the size of strong safeties. Whether those two play at the same time remains to be seen, but something that is certain for the 2012 defense is that it must overcome a lack of experience at linebacker with the exception of Bates, Evans and Jake Holland. That means there is a great opportunity for a young player like Garrett to see significant playing time this fall.