Southerland steps into starting role

ATHENS - "He is a beast." And that's from the man who pound for pound is the strongest football player at Georgia, Thomas Brown.

But the sophomore tailback simply shakes his head a little when talking about another colleague in the Bulldogs backfield.

Now that he's the No. 1 fullback through the first couple weeks of preseason practice, redshirt freshman Brannan Southerland is quietly giving notice.

He doesn't need to say much, because his teammates and coaches do plenty of talking for him.

The 6-foot, 235-pounder came to Georgia as a fullback/linebacker, and was moved to defense for a short time last year to bolster depth at linebacker. He was soon moved back, and it appears he's home for good at fullback.

This makes quarterback D.J. Shockley very happy.

"Brannan's one of those guys who's going to compete, and he's going to do what he's supposed to do at all times," the senior signal-caller says. "He's one of the most dependable guys you can think of."

Southerland moved up a spot on the depth chart when incumbent Des Williams suffered a season-ending chest muscle injury in July.

"I'll be nervous when gametime rolls around," he admits. "I'm more anxious right now. Des, he just told me to get ready."

The list of schools hot on Southerland's trail in high school is a sign of his potential. He picked Georgia over Oklahoma, Notre Dame, as well as Nebraska and other SEC schools. He's played not a down and is at a position that lacks glamour and gets little attention, but he's inspired some hefty talk.

"He's a little different than your normal fullback," says backs coach Kirby Smart. "He's got some athletic ability. I'm not afraid to put him back there in a one-back set. He's blessed with a lot of ability, and is a great 'effort' player."

Shockley's comfort zone increases with the thought of Brown and Southerland in front of him.

"It's kind of fortunate for me," he says. "Two of the strongest guys on the team are behind me. ... I'm glad they're on our team."

Teammates and coaches are looking forward to when thing get more physical so they can see Southerland plaster a linebacker or defensive back.

"He ain't afraid to do that," Smart says. "He's a guy that's not gonna shy away from contact."

Adds Shockley: "I'm looking forward to see what really happens when he really gets some contact."

In part, that's something he's had to work on.

"Last year, he came in like most freshmen come in: nervous and kind of tentative," says Brown. "He's grown up a lot. The biggest thing I've seen from last year is him being a lot more aggressive on his blocks. A lot of times last year, he was somewhat tentative from being new and not knowing what to do.

"I look for great things."

Southerland's happy with his progress in that area.

"That's more of my game, hitting and stuff," he says. "The fullback's got to open up some holes for these tailbacks I got behind me. I just got to give them a little crease and they'll make it happen. They make the fullbacks look good."

Where his cohorts stand almost in awe is when Southerland hits the weight room, where for two straight years he's ranked among the top Bulldogs.

"I'll tell you what," says Shockley, a little smile on his face. "He's in that weight room and he's lifting, everybody's watching. That's how it is."

Southerland says that ethic started back in junior high and increased as his high school used Quality Sports Training in Atlanta. Southerland set a state Class AA meet record in the discus as a senior and qualified for the meet as a junior in the hurdles.

Coach Mark Richt has said that the job is open, and moved Tony Milton — perhaps Georgia's best blocking back — from tailback to fullback, which gives Southerland legitimate and serious competition.

It puts a little more pressure Southerland to pick things up quicker.

"It's the amount of stuff the defenses do with the speed of the game," he says. "You have to react so quick. But I believe I'm on track for the first game."

Smart says there's still work to be done, but he's not too worried.

"Des is a guy who's battle-tested, been in SEC games, been in the stadiums," he offers. "Brannan is untested. He hasn't been in the water. He's got to get into the playbook, study hard. But he's a great kid, a great player. He works extremely hard, he runs well, and he' s not afraid of contact.

"He was born to be a fullback."

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