Dawgs' DT Make it to the End of the Road

ATHENS – Regardless of records and rankings, Georgia's bowl game always serves as an important moment to bid a final farewell to the team's seniors.

This year, however, at one position, it's more than a simple goodbye. It's a changing of the guard.

Senior defensive tackles Geno Atkins, Jeff Owens and Kade Weston have served as the team's starters in some combination every year since 2006, but all three will play their final game Dec. 28 against Texas A&M, and a young group of up-and-comers will be spending their last few moments as understudies before taking over as Georgia's lead dogs.

"Life after them, it should be interesting," defensive tackles coach Rodney Garner said. "We've got some good young guys, so we've just got somebody else that's got to step up. Prior to (the seniors) being here, we worried about them when they were young, too. It's just an opportunity for guys to step up and grow up real quick."

All three seniors are planning on careers in the NFL, and two other members of Georgia's defensive tackle depth chart – Ricardo Crawford and Brandon Wheeling – are graduating, too, which leaves some awfully big shoes to fill.

On the upside, however, it's a vacancy that sophomore DeAngelo Tyson and freshman Abry Jones have been anticipating all season and working hard to ensure they're prepared to fill.

"I've been thinking about it a lot – not so much about how much I'll play, but I've been thinking about how much in the offseason how hard I'm going to work to step up into that stature that Geno and Jeff and Kade have left behind for us," Jones said.

Matching the performance of Georgia's departing veterans won't be easy. Owens is a four-year starter who has been one of the Bulldogs' best run-stuffers since he was a freshman. Weston spent most of his career coming off the bench, but his size and strength made him a feared pass rusher and he stepped in with 6.5 tackles for a loss and 23 quarterback hurries. And Atkins has been a dominant pass-rusher throughout his career, putting together another impressive season in which he had two sacks, 9.5 tackles for a loss and 33 tackles.

"I know I've got some big shoes to fill," Tyson said. "So during the offseason, I'm going to prepare myself to get bigger, stronger and faster and take the road of Jeff, Kade and Geno and become one of the best defensive tackles in the nation."

Neither Tyson nor Jones have earned significant playing time behind the veteran group of seniors, but both have seen the field this year and both have had their high points.

While finding snaps for the youngsters hasn't been easy, it was a necessary way to get them prepared for the impending departure of Georgia's veterans.

"That factored into playing Abry a lot, knowing next year he was going to be in the heat," Garner said. "We didn't want to see how everybody was going to react when everybody was depending on him. We wanted to get him thrown into the fire and acclimated knowing the role he's going to play next year."

Tyson has seen action in each of the past two seasons and had a crucial block of an extra point against South Carolina this season that helped swing the momentum of a Bulldogs win.

Jones played in 11 games and made the most of his time on the field. He had just eight tackles, but two were for a loss, including one sack.

"Even though I didn't get a lot of playing time, I enjoyed every little bit of it," Jones said. "I got to taste SEC football, and that's a good thing."

Of course, beyond just the on-field performance, Tyson and Jones realize that the other young defensive tackles will now be looking to them for advice and leadership.

While junior Brandon Wood appears set to move from defensive end to tackle this spring, it will be Tyson and Jones who will be asked to provide veteran leadership at the position, even if their experience has been limited.

That's a role both take seriously, although neither is completely comfortable with it yet.

"I'm going to be nervous because I've never had to be a leader or put everything on my shoulders," Tyson said. "But I know my coach is going to count on me to be that leader because I'm one of the guys with the most experience. I'm going to have to get everybody else on the right track and show them the ropes of what they have to do to become a great player."

Becoming a great player at defensive tackle is a path well worn at Georgia, and Tyson and Jones have had the advantage of learning under three of the best.

On one hand, it means there will be a noticeable void when Georgia next takes the practice field this spring. On the other hand, Jones said, the next group of tackles will have a lofty standard they'll be working each day to match.

"Jeff, Kade and Geno all set themselves up tremendously and are probably going to get drafted," Jones said. "Me and DeAngelo both have that dream. When you come here, you already have to live up to that standard because Coach Garner has put so many great defensive tackles into the NFL, so you come here with the mind-set to live up that standard. And playing with three guys living up to that standard, it's been great to look up to them."

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