Gilbert tackling role as vocal leader of defense

"I'm just thinking about this season, and trying to make our defense better and our team better. We've been getting better each week and hopefully we can finish on a good note Saturday.''

ATHENS, Ga. — For two straight seasons, Tony Gilbert has led Georgia in tackles.

This year, that will not be enough.

As a senior and the starting middle linebacker for the Bulldogs, Gilbert also has to be a vocal leader. Coach Mark Richt has challenged Gilbert and fellow senior linebacker Boss Bailey to make this their defense.

"It's kind of different because Coach Richt really came in during (offseason conditioning) drills and sat down with me and Boss and he just said he was expecting a lot of us, expecting us to be more vocal, because it was going to be our defense this year,'' Gilbert said.

"As opposed to just leading by example, I've got to lead by example and by talk. It's going to be different.''

Gilbert, from Macon's Central High School, led Georgia with 99 tackles last season after also leading the team with 96 total stops as a sophomore in 2000. Along the way, Gilbert has played beside such other linebackers as Bailey, Will Witherspoon and Kendrell Bell. Some came to Georgia with bigger names, but none have made a bigger impact than Gilbert, who last year was named the defensive MVP.

"I just try to remind myself of where I came from and I'm just trying to stay hungry,'' Gilbert said. "You're only one play away from it all being over, and you always have a younger guy coming in trying to fight for your position. I'm just trying to stay hungry and get better as a player.''

For the first time in his college career, Gilbert is working through spring drills with the same position coach and defensive coordinator — Brian Van Gorder — as in the previous season. Gilbert worked under Gary Gibbs in 2000, Kevin Ramsey in 1999 — when he played in 10 games as a redshirt freshman — and Joe Kines in 1998, when Gilbert was redshirted.

Finally, for a change, Gilbert and the defense do not have to learn a new scheme. It also helps that Van Gorder's defense finished strong last season, allowing no more than 17 points in three straight wins over Mississippi, Georgia Tech and Houston to end the regular season.

"It's great,'' Gilbert said. "Me and Boss were talking about it. We just feel so much more relaxed and comfortable. When you come back to (spring) football, a lot of stuff from the season has to come back to you, but it's not like learning an entire scheme. We just feel a lot more comfortable and relaxed and we're ready to take on a lot more this year.''

Gilbert says he takes pride in his role as the team's leading tackler. Including the Music City Bowl loss to Boston College, Gilbert recorded 11 or more tackles in five games last year. He added two quarterback sacks, caused two fumbles, recovering one, and broke up three passes.

"Definitely it is important as an individual goal, just as long as at the end of the year we can look back at the total defense and we can be toward the top in scoring defense and run defense,'' he said.

At this time next year he should be considered among the top middle linebackers in the 2003 NFL draft. For inspiration, he can look at the performance of Bell, who with the Pittsburgh Steelers was the NFL's Defensive Rookie of the Year last season.

"I talked to Bell a lot, and he just told me to keep playing hard and he said there will be a place for me (in the NFL),'‘ Gilbert said.

"I'm just thinking about this season, and trying to make our defense better and our team better. We've been getting better each week and hopefully we can finish on a good note Saturday.''

NOTES: More information was released Tuesday about plans to televise Saturday's 2 p.m. G-Day spring game at Sanford Stadium. CSS TV, a joint venture of Comcast Sports and Charter Communications, will carry the game live. CSS was launched in 1999 as a 24-hour regional sports network, and it is available in 487,000 households in Georgia, as well as by cable providers in Alabama,  Florida and six other southern states.

CSS has not announced the broadcasters for the game. Any subscriber to Charter cable should have access to the telecast, as well as other cable and satellite viewers with a listing for CSS.

Georgia players will have their normal Dog Walk into the stadium, a tradition revived by Richt last season. The walk is planned for approximately 1:30 p.m.

The walk under the bridge into the stadium made sense for the spring game due to ongoing construction on the East end — the opposite end — of the stadium.

Said Richt: "It's really the only way for us to get to our locker room.''

Richt changed his practice schedule for the week, giving the team a day off Tuesday instead of today, as had been planned.

Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com


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