ATHENS, Ga. - The list of Georgia's greatest linebackers of the past 25 years is topped by those who led the team in tackles in back-to-back years. Nate Taylor, Tommy Thurson, Knox Culpepper, John Brantley, Randall Godfrey and Greg Bright led the Bulldogs in tackles two straight years. Only one linebacker - Ben Zambiasi, Georgia' all-time leader in tackles - led the team three straight years (1975-77).
This season, Tony Gilbert stands poised to join Zambiasi as a a three-time leader. Gilbert won't approach Zambiasi's record of 467 career stops, but the senior from Macon could finish in the top 10 in career tackles if he becomes the second player to three-peat as the leading tackler.
As Gilbert enters the final week of practice for Saturday's 7:45 season opener against Clemson, however, the potential individual glory awaiting him in his senior season seem to be too trivial for mention. Ask Gilbert about leading the team in tackles again, and he just shrugs. Ask him about preseason All-Southeastern Conference recognition and he says it doesn't matter. Ask him about making an impression on NFL scouts, and he says he is not thinking about such things.
As a senior Gilbert, like championship-starved Georgia fans, says he is focused on the opportunity for the best team finish of his career. "If we win more games, that's more important than me getting more tackles,'' he said. "I'm preparing for the first game and just thinking about what I need to do to get ready for Clemson and to have a successful year. I feel like my play this year will take care of itself as to where it will put me with other great linebackers. I'm just not focused on that right now.'
But Gilbert knows his role as Georgia's middle linebacker is to be a run-stopper and tackles leader. As has been the case in his last two years as a starter, his No. 42 needs to be as close to the ball as possible, as often as is possible. Last year, starting every game, Gilbert set career highs with 99 stops, two sacks, two caused fumbles, six tackles for loss of yards and three passes broken up. He seemed to thrive in defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder's 4-3 scheme with more big plays than in his first year as a starter in 2000. The best news for Gilbert is that for the first time in his career he can enjoy the continuity of having the same position coach and defensive coordinator for back-to-back seasons. The comfort provided by the added familiarity in the scheme should help both Gilbert and fellow senior linebacker Boss Bailey enjoy their best seasons.
"It has been tremendous, it's just been great to be able to come in with the same system and same terminology,'' Gilbert said. "The pace is kind of quicker because we know everything.'' Added Bailey: "It makes us a little more comfortable but yet more excited. We're not wondering what we're doing out there. We pretty much are solid on what coach wants. That's what the year does for you. It should pay off big for us this year.''
Now, instead of learning a new defense, Gilbert has been able to focus on refining his skills. As a run-stopper, Gilbert is a polished standout. He says he focused in the offseason and spring practice on better pass coverage when picking up receivers out of the backfield. Gilbert and Bailey were included in the preliminary list of 67 Butkus Award candidates this week, and it would not be a great shock if both survive the cut to 10 semifinalists to be named on Oct. 17.
Gilbert and Bailey also have had to take bigger roles in communication on the field, to make sure new starters in the secondary and at defensive end know their roles on every play. Said VanGorder: "Tony needs to will these other guys to upgrade their game and to play better. That's where his role from even a year ago is that much more important this year.'' Gilbert usually has been surrounded - and perhaps overshadowed - by more experienced linebackers on the team, including Will Witherspoon last season and Kendrell Bell in 2000. Gilbert was named the team's defensive MVP last year, but still he may not be as well known or as well respected as Bailey - especially when placed in the context of his NFL potential. When graded as a college player, Gilbert is ranked by The Sporting News as the sixth-best middle linebacker in the nation. (Bailey is ranked as the second-best outside linebacker by the publication.) Gilbert is not ranked among the leaders at his position in the magazine's early forecast for the 2003 NFL draft. Bailey is projected by Mel Kiper Jr. as a late first-round pick.
At 242 pounds, Gilbert is stout enough to man the position at the next level. Even though there has been a trend toward smaller, faster middle linebackers in the NFL, there still may be a concern about Gilbert's height. He is listed at 6-foot-1 and that may be a generous estimate. Gilbert says a productive season on a winning team should give him a chance to be drafted. "I feel confident if this team has a good year and our defense has a good year, everything will take care of itself,'' he said. "I'm really not worried about what pro scouts are thinking right now. I can't control what they are thinking. All I can control is how our team is playing.''
Bailey was more outspoken on the subject. "If we end the season on the note that we should, I don't see any reason why we shouldn't be the top two linebackers going into next year's draft,'' Bailey said. "I'm sure they'll watch the film and see the way we work and the things we do on the field.''
NOTES: Freshman running back Tyson Browning was held out Saturday with a bruised shoulder, but he is expected to return to practice Monday. Coach Mark Richt also expects offensive tackle Kareem Marshall (neck sprain) to practice Monday.
Size: 6-1, 242
Position: Middle linebacker
Year-by-year tackles totals: 1999 -18; 2000 - led team with 96; 2001 - led team with 99.
Career totals: 31 games, 21 starts, 213 tackles.
Boss Bailey on what makes Gilbert happy: "He just enjoys being around kids. He's a special education major. He's always talking about the kids he works with. He goes and volunteers at different schools and you can tell it makes him excited and it rubs off on other people. He's always talking about the less fortunate. ... He's always smiling. He's just happy about life. You never see him down.''
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