ATHENS, Ga. - At the beginning of this college football season, Georgia junior defensive end Ray Drew had half a sack for his career and had yet to start a game.
At the midway point of Georgia's 12-game schedule, Drew is displaying why he was a top-10 national prospect in the 2011 signing class and the most heralded member of Mark Richt's "Dream Team" crop. The 6-foot-5, 276-pounder from Thomasville sacked LSU quarterback Zach Mettenberger on the final Saturday of September and since has added four more.
"Ray's been a little bit of a surprise," Richt said this week. "When we signed Ray, everybody thought we had this five-star guy who was going to come in and do this and that, and it's taken Ray a little while to get going. Now that the light came on, or however you want to say it, he's really playing well. I like his attitude."
Drew leads the No. 15 Bulldogs (4-2, 3-1) with the five sacks and six tackles for loss entering Saturday's game at Vanderbilt (3-3, 0-3), which should be his fifth start. Within the Southeastern Conference, his 0.83 sack per game is topped only by Missouri's Michael Sam (1.00) and Arkansas' Chris Smith (0.86).
Despite bringing down Tennessee's Justin Worley and Missouri's James Franklin two times each, Drew has enjoyed no sack more than his takedown of Mettenberger.
"That was my first one of the season, and it just takes on a different feel," Drew said. "Getting sacks is about like fishing. You can go out and sit and have the bait in the water all day long, but you're just waiting for that first bite. After you get over that first bite, you're feeling good and it's time to go.
"Getting that first sack was more of a confidence boost than anything. You catch a fish, and you want to catch some more."
Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said Georgia has a number of defensive linemen who are impressive but that it's Drew who has been jumping out on tape.
"He is so relentless and has a tremendous motor," Franklin said. "He's got a really good combination of size and athleticism."
The most prominent Georgia defensive end known for his "motor" was David Pollack, who played for the Bulldogs from 2001 to '04 and was an All-American his last three seasons. Pollack set the school's career mark with 36 sacks while wearing jersey No. 47, which Drew wears now.
Drew played in just 20 of 28 games his first two seasons and totaled 31 tackles, but he describes those years as helpful and informative.
"Unless you just come in as a Freshman All-American and play every snap from the time you get here until the time you leave, there is a wall that every player hits," Drew said. "You'll sit and wonder, 'Did I make the right decision?' You wonder if you're as good as you thought you were or if you should have done something else."
The Bulldogs have been languishing in most SEC defensive categories, except those related to the play up front. Georgia's 16 sacks are tied for third with Auburn, behind Arkansas (20) and Missouri (17), and the Bulldogs are fourth in rushing defense (allowing 139.7 yards a game) behind Florida (83.3), Alabama (87.2) and Missouri (126.2).
Georgia's defensive front has yet to parlay its impressive play with an increased number of caused turnovers, but it's a group that is exceeding expectations given the sizable personnel losses from a year ago.
"I've been pleased with those guys," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "From the first game on, they've shown improvement. Ray is a good example of a young guy who in his first year played roughly 10 plays a game. Everybody was asking, 'What's wrong with Ray?' It's part of maturity.
"The guy keeps working and grinding and understands what he's got to do to play at this level, and he knows now what to do and is having a lot of success. He's really been one of the most consistent performers we've had this year."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.