Sterling Bailey is embracing his opportunity.
The University of Georgia defensive end and East Hall High grad will be one of the players most under the microscope and is expected to see plenty of playing time in Saturday’s G-Day Game in Athens. He doesn’t think of it as added pressure, after existing in the shadows his first two seasons, but more a proving ground to show he belongs in the starting lineup in the fall for a defense looking to fill holes all across the board.
“My goal for the G-Day game is to get out there and make some plays,” said Bailey, a redshirt sophomore.
The G-Day game starts at 1 p.m. Saturday at Sanford Stadium; admission is free.
All during the spring, the 6-foot-3, 295-pound Bailey, who played in the U.S. Army All-American Bowl as a high school senior, has started to display the potential the Bulldogs saw when they recruited him and eventually signed him as a high school senior with the Vikings. Now, after largely waiting in the wings for two seasons, Bailey knows it’s his time to shine.
“This is an important opportunity to show the coaches that I can play and want to be out there on the field,” he said.
Georgia’s coaches seem to be pretty pleased with the direction Bailey in headed at defensive end, a position he is in a two-man battle for the starting job with Ray Drew at the weakside spot opposite returning senior starter Garrison Smith. Already this spring, Bailey’s name was brought up by first-year defensive line coach Chris Wilson, formerly at Mississippi State, for being the player that stood out the most with his performance in drills.
“It’s nice hearing good things from the coaches, but I’m not going to let it get to my head,” Bailey said. “I’m just going to keep working and try to improve.”
Although Bailey played sparingly in reserve last season, including a few snaps against Vanderbilt in Athens, he considers the spring football game his first true experience playing between the hedges. During G-Day, rosters are divided with the first-team offense and second-team defense against the second-team offense and first-team defense.
The first thing fans will notice about Bailey is that he’s gotten much bigger, adding about 50 pounds in the almost two years since he enrolled at Georgia. But adding bulk and strength doesn’t necessarily ensure a starting job as a defensive lineman. He says the work was equally grueling learning the defensive system and showing he could handle the nuance of playing on the edge of the line as a pass rusher in the 3-4 scheme.
“It’s started to click now and I’m really learning my assignments,” Bailey said. “I’ve just really given it my all to learn the system.”
Even though Bailey looks to be an impact player in 2013, it wasn’t necessarily a smooth transition from high school. When he came out of East Hall, the Bulldogs were loaded on the defensive line and he said doubts started to arise if he was at the right place and if he would ever work his way up the depth chart to earn playing time. During the hard times, Bailey said he leaned on his family in Hall County with parents, Kevin and Laura Bailey, and the family’s pastor to stay motivated and on track.
Now, Bailey is right where he wanted to be with three years of football eligibly still remaining at Georgia.
Both Bailey and Drew have seen playing time for Georgia, but neither has started at the weakside defensive end spot that Cornelius Washington held down last year. Garrison Smith, with eight starts under his belt from 2012, will start on the other side. At nose tackle, the competition is a little more intense with John Taylor, Mike Thornton, Chris Mayes and John Atkins, all 300-plus pounders, vying for the spot that was shared by John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers in 2012.
The Bulldogs also have to replace a pair of linebackers that will likely go in the first round of this month’s NFL Draft.
Still, Bailey likes the composite of Georgia’s defense with so much still up in the air.
“I think people will be surprised by our defense and how many great athletes we have and how fast this group is,” he said.