When three of those four ‘backers play inside linebacker, it becomes cause for panic.
That is why all eyes will be on Georgia's defense as the Bulldogs move on without Christian Robinson, Mike Gilliard and projected first-rounder Alec Ogletree—three of the most experienced inside linebackers on last year's squad.
In Georgia's scenario, it's too early to hit the panic button, as the Bulldogs have some talented players returning and a strong incoming freshman class to help offset its losses.
When looking for replacements, the obvious candidate for one of the two inside linebacker spots employed in Grantham's 3-4 scheme is rising junior Amarlo Herrera, who has started 17 games at the position in his first two seasons. Herrera is the top returning tackler from the 2012 season, and the College Park native, who has played in all 28 games since he arrived on campus, figures to be the leader at the position moving forward.
Herrera will have his work cut out. He will be tasked with bringing along a large and talented group of newcomers and Ramik Wilson, a veteran who has bounced around the linebacker positions.
Wilson enters spring practice with a leg up on the competition for the second starting ILB spot. After cross-training at outside and inside linebacker the last two seasons, Wilson appears to have a home at inside linebacker due to Georgia's need at the position. Wilson was supposed to start at outside linebacker in the 2012 opener with Chase Vasser suspended, but that never came to fruition. Still, Wilson played in 10 games in 2012, and prior to last season, Grantham said of Wilson: "He's got power and, as an inside guy, he's got very good cover ability. He's athletic. He's a good player."
Wilson must stave off a group of hungry and skilled freshmen for playing time this season, as Georgia coaches brought in some of the best linebackers around the country.
Early enrollee Reggie Carter may be the best candidate to unseat Wilson from a presumed starting role. The South Gwinnett product is a strong tackler with good size to come up and support the run. Carter spent much of his high school days playing defensive end, so his pass-rushing skills are more developed than his pass coverage skills. If he can improve in coverage and adjust to the college game this spring, he should see playing time in the season opener at Clemson.
Ryne Rankin also graduated high school early and arrived in Athens in January. The son of his high school head coach at East River (Orlando, Fla.), Rankin is a relentless, instinctive linebacker with a nose for the football. In high school, the three-star recruit was a tackling machine that averaged 18 tackles per game as a junior and racked up 189 tackles his senior season. With time to learn, gain strength and adjust to the college life this spring, Rankin could be poised to play immediately this fall.
Georgia coaches snagged a gem in Indiana when they signed Tim Kimbrough, the fifth-ranked middle linebacker in the 2012 class. Kimbrough held dozens of offers from BCS schools but chose Georgia for its football tradition and the Bulldogs' need for linebackers. With Kimbrough in tow, Georgia has another solid run-stuffing linebacker. Kimbrough boasts solid closing speed and strength, sheds blocks well and can play sideline-to-sideline. The 235-pound backer should see playing time early, despite having just fall camp to prepare for action.
Another addition to the roster this fall is four-star West Laurens product Johnny O'Neal. At 6-foot-2, 230 pounds, O'Neal is in a similar mold as Herrera (who, like O'Neal, was also the 11th-rated middle linebacker in his class). O'Neal possesses the strength, physicality and closing speed that should translate nicely to the college game. He needs improvement in coverage skills and lateral quickness in order to run in coverage, but his ability to shed blocks and attack the ball-carrier make him well-suited for stopping the run at the next level. He should see the field early, contributing especially on short-yardage situations.
Freshman Shaun McGee could be a dark horse in the linebacker competition. Which linebacker position McGee will play is the question mark right now, though. He played defensive end at Brookwood but will make the move to the second-level in college. McGee pursues the ball well, and if he adds some upper-body strength, he could improve his ability to shed blocks to be a good pass-rusher at the next level. Coaches have told McGee he will learn all four linebacker positions, but if he settles inside, he could be one to keep track of heading into the season.
Also, returnee Brandon Burrows, who's been plagued by injuries, has yet to receive substantial playing time in his career, but he, along with Appalachian State transfer A.J. McDonald, will try to break into the rotation and earn playing time in the fall.
Stay tuned for next week's breakdown, when we look at how Georgia can replace phenom Jarvis Jones at outside linebacker.