Now just a month shy of the opening of spring practice, last year's injury-ravaged linebacker group could be the deepest position on the roster, with the competition for playing time already in full force.
"I can't say for sure what it's going to look like going into our first game because we've got a lot of capable guys, and it's pretty open right now," said weakside linebacker Rennie Curran, the team's leading tackler in 2008. "It's all going to depend on spring ball, fall camp, and we'll see how hard those guys work."
With six players returning from injuries that cut their 2008 seasons short and only Ellerbe departing from last year's group, depth is no longer a major concern, but finding playing time for so many linebackers might be a problem for coach John Jancek.
Curran is the only player with a set job at this point, while the middle linebacker job vacated by Ellerbe will be completely up for grabs between at least three veterans.
Senior Marcus Washington started six games in 2007 but missed all of last year with a shoulder injury. Akeem Dent played in all 13 games a year ago, making 46 tackles and impressing coaches. The favorite for the job, however, is Darryl Gamble, who started three games at Mike in place of an injured Ellerbe and finished third on the team with 70 tackles before missing the bowl game with a broken leg.
"Mike position is kind of wide open right now, so right now as far as I'm concerned, I'm fighting for a position," Washington said. "It's going to be very competitive. I see it could be a rotation between a lot of guys, alternating starting guys each week. You just never know what's going to happen."
The competition will extend beyond the three veterans. Freshman Marcus Dowtin earned playing time in all 13 games a year ago, making 17 tackles and forcing a fumble. Jancek expects Dowtin to play an even bigger role this year, saying the freshman has the ability to earn a starting job with a strong spring and fall camp.
Sophomor Akeem Hebron left the program for a year after off-field problems, but returned last season and was expected to find a niche as a reserve at Will linebacker. His season ended abruptly, however, after fracturing his ankle in practice in October.
While Hebron expects to be ready for spring practice, junior Darius Dewberry won't return from shoulder surgery until June. Dewberry played in just seven games last season, missing two after a preseason suspension and sitting out the final four with the shoulder injury. Jancek said Dewberry could be considered for a position change to defensive end, depending on how things shake out in the early parts of fall camp.
"All those guys with experience, it's exciting," Curran said. "All of us have good chemistry together, we all play well together, all have positive attitudes and are ready to lead this defense."
A year ago, it was Curran, the soft-spoken sophomore, who stepped into a leadership role to become the heart of the Bulldogs' defense for much of the season.
While the on-field production will be a major factor in determining how the depth chart shakes out, Jancek said the main thing he'll be looking for this spring is for others to join Curran as leaders.
"I think Rennie has established himself as a great player and has the respect of his teammates and coaches," Jancek said. "I think they all need to step up and take more ownership in the defense and really push themselves in terms of becoming more vocal and leading by example. Playing time, that'll take care of itself, but we need guys to step up and have a voice on this defense."