ATHENS, Ga. - Marshall football coach Bob Pruett offered high praise this week for a Georgia defense that hasn't given up a touchdown in the past seven quarters, saying the Bulldogs "might be the best defensive football team that I've played since I've been coaching."
The third-ranked Bulldogs' defense could get even better in the weeks to come.
Yes, Odell Thurman had reason to flash a big smile on the practice field Tuesday as the Bulldogs' All-Southeastern Conference middle linebacker returned to his starting spot. His three-game suspension for violating unspecified team rules is over just in time for an important SEC game against No. 13 LSU on Oct. 2.
"As a competitor, I kind of like coming back for a big game, a game that's going to kind of set our season," Thurman said.
The 6-foot-1, 235-pound Thurman was a preseason All-American selection by Lindy's. The junior led Georgia with 18 tackles for loss last season and was second only to defensive end David Pollack with 6 sacks.
Now Georgia again has premier players from the front of their defense to the back.
"I'm excited," defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder said. "He's a guy who runs so well that he establishes a speed tempo for our defense. When you look at the way Pollack runs and the way (safety) Thomas Davis runs and the way Odell runs, you can kind of see (that) all three levels kind of have a guy that really can establish a different kind of tempo for that group. That's the one thing that he does a little bit different than the other linebackers."
Georgia is 12th in the nation in total defense (260.3 yards per game) after its 13-3 victory over Marshall on Saturday. It was the Thundering Herd's lowest point total since a 42-0 loss to Toledo in 2000. The Bulldogs have begun to resemble a defense that last year was third in the nation in scoring and fourth in total defense.
"They've played pretty well without him and I'm sure they'll play better with him," coach Mark Richt said. "They've been pretty chipper."
Davis said: "We feel like we've been playing pretty good but once you get a guy back like Odell who's All-American and All-SEC, you can't do nothing but improve your defense. We feel like we can play pretty much close to where we were last year, or even better. Who knows where we can go on defense?"
While his Georgia teammates focused on the three teams on the Bulldogs' September schedule, Thurman had visions of guys like Louisiana State tailback Justin Vincent and center Ben Wilkerson bouncing in his head.
"There wasn't a reason for me to study Marshall and South Carolina and all of those guys," Thurman said. "I've been on LSU by my own basically for the last three weeks."
Thurman's loss has been Georgia's gain - at least in terms of experience for linebackers like Jarvis Jackson, Danny Verdun Wheeler and Derrick White, who got increased playing time in his absence.
"It's one of those situations where you are really concerned going into it and now as we look at it being 3-0, we gained a lot of experience with a couple of young guys," VanGorder said.
"That may pay off for us in the long run."
Jackson, a sophomore who is second on the team with 21 tackles, will move to weakside linebacker and could end up as the starter there after competing with Wheeler.
White, who started the season-opener in the middle but missed the past two games with a sprained ankle, is likely to move to strongside linebacker where starter Arnold Harrison has been backed up by freshman Brandon Miller.
Jamario Smith, who has battled the flu for more than a week, will back up at middle linebacker but Thurman should get every meaningful snap there unless injured.
VanGorder calls Thurman a "knowledgeable" linebacker who is coachable so he isn't worried about Thurman being stale for LSU.
Neither does the excitable Thurman, who said he's sure he'll be "overhyped" heading into the game but not so much that he won't be back to his old self on the field.
"I feel like I'm a good enough player," Thurman said, "that I'm going to come back and play as well as I did last year."