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Big defense led by little linebacker
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ATHENS — When the play begins, Rennie Curran is usually looking up. At the linemen trying to block him. At the running backs attempting to get past him.

Then he brings them all down to size.

Georgia’s freshman linebacker has been a tackling machine for the sixth-ranked Bulldogs, defying those who thought he wasn’t big enough — Curran is only 5-foot-11 and barely over 200 pounds — to man such a bruising position at a big-time school.

Playing with speed and abandon, Curran has been a major catalyst for Georgia’s late-season turnaround: four straight wins, a surge in the rankings, a shot at both the Southeastern Conference championship game and a major bowl invitation.

"He’s been so electric," senior safety Kelin Johnson said. "He can be totally wrong on a play, but he’s going 100 percent full speed all the time and he’s still going to make the play. It’s all about energy and what you bring to the game. He brings a lot."

Coach Mark Richt marvels at how much faster the defense looks since Curran got on the field, starting three of the last four games. Last week, the freshman made a career-best 13 tackles — nearly twice as many as any of his teammates — in a 24-13 win over Kentucky.

He should get plenty of chances Saturday when Georgia closes the regular season at rival Georgia Tech, whose offense features Tashard Choice.

"A lot of people look at Rennie and say, ‘He’s not tall enough, he’s not this, he’s not that,"’ Richt said. "But then you watch him play ... and he’s making all the tackles."

Growing up, Curran spent most of his time as a running back. He had no desire to play defense, preferring to be the guy scoring touchdowns instead of trying to prevent them.

When Curran got to high school, he didn’t exactly hit it off with the freshman coach. Next thing he knows, he’s being handed off to the defense — a move he still perceives as punishment, but turned out to be a huge boost to his career.

Curran was mad when he got to linebacker, and he took out his frustrations on anyone who got in his way. He hasn’t let up.

"I hated defense," Curran said. "I felt like the coach kind of did that just to push me off. I had this (ticked) off attitude, and I just took it out on the field with me. Then I started making almost every tackle, and that mentality just stuck with me. It’s weird how it all happened."

Curran claimed a starting job early in his sophomore year at Brookwood High School, a prep powerhouse in suburban Atlanta, and put up the first of three straight seasons with more than 100 tackles.

When he was credited with 198 stops as a junior, some colleges took another look at Curran. Sure, he wasn’t that big, but maybe it wasn’t such a detriment after all. He started getting more recruiting calls and wound up with offers from Auburn, Georgia Tech, Boston College and Mississippi State.

"The numbers don’t lie," Curran said. "I think that shut up a lot of questions about how my height would affect my playing ability."

The other schools were just wasting their time, as it turned out. Early on, Curran had decided Georgia was the school for him. He never seriously considered any of the other offers.

Curran has tried to model his style on perennial Pro Bowler Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens. He also looks up to such bruising linebackers as New England’s Tedy Bruschi and former Atlanta Falcons’ star Jessie Tuggle, another player seen as undersized who went on to a long career in the NFL.

From Johnson’s point of view in the secondary, Curran actually has an advantage because he’s not as tall as most of the offensive players he goes up against.

"One thing about Rennie is he’s low. He’s a shorter guy, which gives him a lower center of gravity. He’s harder to block," Johnson said. "When you’ve got these linemen who are 6-5, 6-6, 6-7, trying to go down and block somebody like Rennie, all he’s got to do is move out of the way."

Richt is impressed with Curran’s tackling skills, which are equal parts technique, speed and natural ability.

Remembering those rare times when he did play defense as a kid, Curran realizes this is where he was meant to be all along.

"Even when I didn’t like defense, when I played it, I usually laid somebody out," he said. "I brought the wood. Looking back, I can see I always had it in me."

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