ATHENS — Georgia couldn’t stop Marcus Lattimore a year ago when the Bulldogs’ defense included starting linebacker Akeem Dent, who’s now with the NFL Atlanta Falcons.
It could be even more difficult for Georgia to contain No. 12 South Carolina’s powerful back with a freshman or a walk-on possibly starting at linebacker.
The Bulldogs lost starter Alec Ogletree for four to six weeks with a broken foot in last week’s loss to then-No.5 Boise State, leaving Georgia scrambling to find a replacement for Saturday’s game against the Gamecocks.
The candidates to replace Ogletree include Jeremy Sulek, a senior walk-on, and Amarlo Herrera, a freshman from North Clayton High School. Another possibility is junior Mike Gillard, who has nine tackles in 11 career games.
“We’re deciding on the linebacker position through competition,” Richt said, adding he may know select a starter by Thursday.
Lattimore had 37 carries for 182 yards and two touchdowns in South Carolina’s 17-6 win over Georgia last year in Columbia. It was his first Southeastern Conference game.
“Marcus is a great player, not a good player,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt this week.
Lattimore already ranks 25th on South Carolina’s records with 1,309 yards rushing.
“That whole week we prepared to run the ball and I knew coming into the game that we were going to run the ball a lot,” Lattimore said. “Once I got in my groove, I felt like I could be successful. Obviously, I had a good game. This year, it’s a whole different year. They’re watching film and they’ll be ready.”
The sophomore is a big reason the Gamecocks were the preseason favorite to win the SEC’s Eastern Division. He opened this season with 112 yards rushing and three touchdowns in the Gamecocks’ 56-37 win over East Carolina last week.
“Their running back is probably the best running back in the country when you look at him and the things he did for them last year,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. “Their offensive line works well together. They’re big. They’re physical. They push you. They maul guys. They stay on blocks to let the running back find the seam, and then he can take it from there.”
Junior Christian Robinson, who led Georgia with 13 tackles in last week’s 35-21 loss to then-No. 5 Boise State, is the other starting inside linebacker in the 3-4 defense.
The challenge of defending the 6-foot, 232-pound Lattimore and finding a new starting linebacker is one reason Georgia, which had a typically tough Tuesday practice, was back in full pads on Wednesday. Extra contact drills are needed for an extra-difficult assignment.
Richt said Wednesday Lattimore’s yards after contact are huge for South Carolina and a big concern for his defense.
“If you block for two yards twice, it’s third and six,” Richt said. “If your back can get you two yards after contact, then it’s third and two and that’s what he can do as well as any back I can remember in a long time.”
Richt said he resisted the thought of moving tailback Richard Samuel back to linebacker. Samuel (6-2, 243) moved from inside linebacker to tailback this summer and would add important size to the middle of the defense.
“There wasn’t any discussion,” Richt said. “I thought about it just kind of laying on the pillow at night, but by the time Richard got back and trained up and really ready to play, Ogletree would probably be back healthy and ready to go.”
Sulek had seven tackles after taking over for Ogletree. He had four career tackles before the game.
Also critical to Georgia’s run defense will be the play of massive nosetackles Kwame Geathers (6-6, 350) and John Jenkins (6-3, 351). Geathers has missed practice this week with what Richt called a “stinger,” but is expected to play against South Carolina.
Lattimore said he expects the Georgia defense will be motivated.
“Definitely. They just lost to Boise State,” Lattimore said. “They’re going to be a mad defense and they’ll definitely be ready to stop the run.”