This certainly has qualified as a transition season for Georgia's defensive front.
The Bulldogs lost tried-and-true nose tackle John Atkins off last year's Southeastern Conference championship team, and they have competed without the edge-rushing success they enjoyed a season ago with the veteran outside linebacker tandem of Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter. Seven starters overall had to be replaced from last year's defense, but the front held its own to give the Bulldogs the opportunity to repeat as league champs before losing to Alabama 35-28 early this month at Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta.
"I'm proud as heck of this group, because they're more resilient than anybody I know," Georgia defensive line coach Tray Scott said minutes after the setback to the Crimson Tide. "They're tough as nails and work their tails off. I'm excited for the things to come. I hate it for the seniors, because a guy like Jonathan Ledbetter came back and fought his tail off.
"At the end of the day, that's what you want to do. You want to get back to this point and win it."
On Saturday, the No. 6 Bulldogs (11-2) finished their on-campus workouts for their New Year's night showdown against No. 14 Texas (9-4) in the Sugar Bowl. They will arrive in New Orleans on Thursday.
Despite the personnel losses from a year ago, Georgia's defense enters the Sugar Bowl having allowed 311.2 yards per game this season, which ranks 13th nationally. The Bulldogs ranked sixth in that category last season, yielding 294.9 yards a contest.
Georgia dropped more significantly in lost-yardage stops, with last year's team averaging 6.2 tackles for loss and 2.27 sacks per game compared to this season's averages of 4.5 and 1.69.
Ledbetter has been the unquestioned leader of this season's defensive front, which also includes fellow seniors DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle and Jay Hayes; juniors Michael Barnett, Tyler Clark, David Marshall and Julian Rochester; sophomores Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt; and freshman Jordan Davis. Hawkins-Muckle and Marshall missed the back half of the regular season due to injuries.
"This is bittersweet, but I'm excited," Ledbetter said this past week in a news conference about his final game with the Bulldogs. "I'm ready for the next step, and I've told my teammates that I'm passing the torch to them after this one. After that, I've got to worry about me.
"I'm getting older. I'm growing up."
It is not known whether any of the juniors will elect to bypass his senior season for the NFL draft. Ledbetter has led the defensive linemen with 51 tackles and 5.5 tackles for loss, with Rochester (29, 1.5) and Clark (26, 4.0) next in line.
Davis, a 6-foot-6, 320-pounder from Charlotte, North Carolina, started the SEC championship game and has totaled 25 tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss in his debut year.
"He's a really good football player who's athletic with a lot of upside," Scott said. "I'm excited for all these guys who are coming back, and I can't wait to continue to work with them."
Scott expects to benefit from an early signing period that brought in Jermaine Johnson, Nolan Smith and Travon Walker.
Walker is the nation's No. 2 defensive tackle in the 2019 recruiting class, according to 247Sports.com, while Smith is the No. 1 weakside defensive end and will begin his Bulldogs career as an outside linebacker.Johnson is the No. 1 junior college prospect nationally and will be shifting from defensive end to outside linebacker as well.
"I don't look at Jermaine as a defensive lineman. I look at him as a pass rusher," Bulldogs head coach Kirby Smart said this past week. "We certainly feel like we've dropped off in our speed on the edge from the Lorenzos and Davins and Leonard Floyds over the years. To be able to get Jermaine and Nolan - I don't know that there are two better pass rushers in a signing class anywhere in the country when it comes to speed.
"Jermaine can run. Nolan can run. These guys have to help us disrupt the quarterbacks, which we struggled with this year."
Although Georgia was more productive up front defensively last season and has the potential of a very bright 2019, Scott is not about to reflect on this year in a negative way.
"It's been amazing and great to see the guys really be able to respond and improve throughout the year, because that's the main thing," Scott said. "Making the decision every day to work as hard as you can and to be obsessed with your own individual improvement is the most difficult thing for these guys to do.
"Some of them do a good job of making that decision, and some of them don't."
Georgia senior cornerback Deandre Baker was not spotted by the media at Friday's practice, leading to speculation that he has changed his mind about playing in the Sugar Bowl. Baker, who is being projected as an NFL first-round pick, said earlier this month that he was eager to suit up against the Longhorns.
Saturday's final on-campus practice was closed to the media.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.