Defense should be Georgia's strength entering '03

ATHENS, Ga. - <b>Brian VanGorder</b> couldn't stop smiling Saturday. Following Georgia's G-Day spring football game, VanGorder sat patiently in the Sanford Stadium lockerroom, fielding questions. The defensive coordinator was in no hurry to leave, because each question about his unit prompted another grin.

Almost giddy in his optimism about the outlook for his defense in 2003, Brian VanGorder did not attempt to disguise his confidence with the reserved tones usually used by coaches.

VanGorder made it clear he believes his defense is blessed with talent and depth, with a big emphasis on depth.

Depth? Consider that Georgia lost starting linebackers Boss Bailey, Tony Gilbert and Chris Clemons from the 2002 team. Each of the three are expected to be picked in this month's NFL draft and Bailey is a lock to be a first-round pick.

  Still, VanGorder is so excited about the linebackers he coached this spring and the incoming freshmen that he said: "We're finally going to have our linebacker position, from a numbers standpoint and the type of players, where it should be.''

Added VanGorder: "We'll be a lot better off.''

VanGorder's surprising appraisal came after watching middle linebacker Odell Thurman return an interception 29 yards for a touchdown, outside linebacker Thomas Davis post 10 tackles with two sacks and outside linebacker Tony Taylor add eight stops in the spring game.

Davis, who played backup roles at safety and linebacker last season, "is similar to a Boss Bailey,'' VanGorder said. "He's very athletic like Boss.''

Clemons' decision to enter the NFL draft after his junior season could have been influenced by the possibility he could have lost playing time to Taylor in 2003.

With commenting specifically about Clemons, VanGorder said "I think Tony Taylor can improve our overall (weakside linebacker) play. We were really inconsistent there.''

Among the freshmen who will join the team this summer are linebackers  Marcus Howard, Danny Verdun, Des Williams, Dana Graydon and Jarvis Jackson.

VanGorder says he didn't have enough depth last season to give Gilbert a rest. "It's very hard to be your best for 70 plays,'' said VanGorder, who predicts more substitutions at linebacker this fall.

There also should be impressive depth on the defensive line and in the secondary.

Coming out of spring, VanGorder said his starting defensive tackles are Darrius Swain and Ken Veal. Two players on the rise, Ray Gant and Gerald Anderson, were second-team tackles at the end of spring. Other options include Dale Dixson and Kedric Golston, who started three games as a true freshman last season and should be stronger this fall after having a steel rod removed from his leg.

Perhaps the deepest position on the team is defensive end, where 2002 SEC Player of the Year David Pollack is joined by Will Thompson, Robert Geathers, Shedrick Wynn, Marcus Jackson, Marquis Elmore and others.

Cornerback Tim Jennings proved that starting positions can be won in the spring. VanGorder said Saturday Jennings has earned a starting job, though the coach would not say if he would list Jennings ahead of Bruce Thornton or Decory Bryant. A fourth cornerback who has earned playing time is DeMario Minter.

Finally, rover Kentrell Curry and free safety Sean Jones are returning starters who will be backed up by Greg Blue, Kenny Bailey and a player to watch as a possible future starter, Olaolu Sanni-Osomo.

Lack of size at linebacker is a concern, especially against the run, but speed  is the constant strength throughout the defense.

"We can run; we really can run,'' VanGorder said. "We've got to get stronger. We've got to gain power, but I'd rather go that way than worry about speed.''

For a Georgia team that must replace its leading rusher, leading receiver and entire starting offensive line, the defense will be expected to play the lead role early in the season.

Based on the big smile on VanGorder's face Saturday, the spring warm-up for that lead role was a success.

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