Originally created 08/08/03

Abilities shine in new linebackers



ATHENS, Ga. - Based on numbers alone, Georgia's linebackers would seem to be in big trouble this season.

With the departures of Boss Bailey, Tony Gilbert and Chris Clemons, the Bulldogs lost a combined 62 starts over the previous two seasons - not to mention their two leading tacklers from last year in Bailey and Gilbert.

Surprisingly, however, there's a quiet confidence coming from coaches and players that indicates Georgia's linebacking corps won't be in much trouble this season. In fact, there's some sentiment that the replacements could eventually be better than their predecessors - maybe even this year.

"I've been saying all along that they're athletic, they're eager to hit, and they're eager to learn," coach Mark Richt said earlier this week. "They've got playmaking ability as good or better than the last group."

Richt won't predict that the new will be better than the old this season, but it's evident that he and other coaches believe it's possible.

The projected starters at linebacker are Thomas Davis on the strong side, Odell Thurman in the middle and Tony Taylor on the weak side. They're all sophomores, and Thurman has yet to play down of Division I-A football.

Davis, who alternated between safety and linebacker last season, knows it's a relatively inexperienced group with no history of leadership approaching that of Bailey and Gilbert. But he says these guys could have more speed.

"Looking at our athletic ability, we have a very fast group of linebackers this year," Davis said. "Not knocking Tony Gilbert or anything, but Odell is a whole lost faster than he was."

Thurman, a 6-foot-1, 225-pounder who played at Georgia Military College last season, showed Georgia fans a glimpse of that speed in the G-Day game last spring, intercepting a pass by David Greene and returning it 29 yards for a touchdown.

Defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said Thurman is almost too fast.

"He's trying to calm his game down some," VanGorder said. "He likes to play fast. At linebacker, you've got to slow down sometimes before you let it go, and he's learning that."

Davis quickly developed a reputation as a ferocious hitter last year, recording 61 tackles and three sacks - two in Georgia's 26-13 Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State.

Davis played the first eight games at strong safety, but he spent the rest of the season playing mostly linebacker after Clemons suffered an injury. Davis started at strong-side linebacker against Florida and Mississippi.

"It was valuable, because it allowed me to get a little starting experience at linebacker," said Davis, who added 25 pounds during the off-season and now is at 225. "It's different, because you have to be involved in physical contact every play when you're a linebacker. At safety, you can just drop back and not have any contact whatsoever.

"Linebacker suits my game a whole lot better. There really isn't much that you can bring to the table that Boss didn't, but I'd say I'm a harder hitter. Maybe more consistent at making tackles," he said.

Taylor played in all 14 games last year and started once, registering 38 tackles.

"They're all high-energy players," Richt said of his starters.

Backing up Davis on the strong side is Arnold Harrison, a former Josey High standout who has played sparingly the past two seasons. Davis said Harrison, a junior, knows VanGorder's system as well or better than anyone.

Harrison highlights a group of backups that includes promising freshmen Des Williams, Dana Graydon, Marcus Howard and Thomson's Danny Verdun-Wheeler.

"Whenever there's something I don't know, I just ask Arnold," Davis said. "He knows his stuff, and he has speed and a physical presence. I'd say he's our top backup at linebacker."

Richt knows the replacements at linebacker are capable of big things.

"Linebackers are the ones that have to communicate back and forth between the defensive line and secondary and keep everybody on the same page," Richt said. "Boss and Tony (Gilbert) were awesome at that. Will these guys be able to do that right away without making many mistakes? I don't know."

What he does know is that the potential is there.

Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645 or larry.williams@augustachronicle.com.