Looking Forward to Clash

ATHENS - Georgia fullback Jeremy Thomas and Georgia Tech linebacker Daryl Smith have known each other for several years.

Jeremy Thomas, Daryl Smith and the Yellow Jackets' Keyaron Fox were the starting linebackers for Georgia's high school all-star team in the 1999 Georgia-Florida All-Star game and developed a friendship. So it's nice that on this holiday weekend, Thomas and Smith will be able to spend so much time together.

When the No. 5 Bulldogs (9-2) play the Yellow Jackets (6-5) Saturday in Grant Field, the two players will meet again - and again - and again. It won't, however, be a friendly, "how-ya-doin'" kind of exchange.

Fullbacks and middle linebackers wage mostly unseen battles throughout every college football game, repeatedly throwing their bodies into one another in a battle for turf - sometimes just inches of it.

"That's one of the biggest matchups of the game, in my opinion, the fullback vs. the middle linebacker," Thomas said. "That's a physical block, too. Sometimes outside I'll cut the guy down, but that is straight up, man-on-man."

Georgia coach Mark Richt estimates 90 percent of the time Thomas is in the game, his first responsibility is to block a linebacker and most of those times, it's the middle linebacker.

"The fullback pretty much has to know where the Mike (middle linebacker) is all the time," Bulldog running backs coach Ken Rucker said. "The Mike is going to take him to his work. They're kind of the center of attention."

The Bulldogs' most productive rushing play this season has been their sprint draw, and they use the same formation for many of their passing plays. In either situation, Thomas' job is to find the middle linebacker and hit him - hard.

The fullback-middle linebacker matchup is so ingrained into players that Richt used the tendency to devise one of his most successful plays. Georgia fans know it as P-44 Haynes, the play the Bulldogs used to upset Tennessee in 2001.

The play works because the middle linebacker is so accustomed to being blocked by the fullback that he'll do anything to avoid the fullback. In P-44 Haynes, the fullback fakes a quick blocking attempt and slips past the middle linebacker. Almost without fail, he'll be wide open in the middle of the field. The play has scored for Richt the last five times he's called it, including three times at Georgia.

This week, Thomas, a 5-foot-11, 238-pound junior, will be matched against Smith, a 6-foot-2, 235-pound senior. At first glance, it seems like a mismatch, an All-ACC first-team selection against the Bulldogs' former walk-on.

"He's definitely one of the best (in ACC), maybe the best," Thomas said of Smith. "He'll probably go to the (NFL) so he can't be that bad, right? I've got tons of respect for him and Fox and all those boys."

Georgia's coaches like their chances, too. Thomas grades out highly on his blocking assignments most weeks, and he's shown a willingness to throw himself repeatedly into whoever is in front of him.

He missed this year's UAB game due to a concussion. He suffered the injury on the first play of the preceding game but played the remainder of the game despite dizziness. That illustrates what life is like for a fullback.

"Jeremy's not going to run as fast as some of the athletes we face every week," Rucker said, "but he's a good athlete."

Thomas gets the occasional carry - 17 this year for 46 yards - and catches a pass now and again - six for 97 yards. But most of the time, he's just a battering ram.

"I think he's growing into an outstanding college fullback," Rucker said. "Fullback fits his makeup. It fits him to a T."

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