When UM spring practice begins in a month, here’s one of many things the coaches need to determine:
Which of the Class of 2018 players are ready for significant playing time?
Cornerbacks D.J. Ivey and Al Blades Jr. and defensive tackle Nesta Silvera displayed flashes last year, and all will be needed for larger roles.
Three freshmen who redshirted last season — cornerback-turned-striker Gilbert Frierson and cornerback Nigel Bethel — and defensive tackle Jordan Miller also will get a long look.
So will Patrick Joyner Jr., who adapted adequately to his move from linebacker to defensive end and ended up redshirting.
Then there’s safety Gurvan Hall, who appeared in 10 games — mostly on special teams — and will be in the mix to compete with Bubba Bolden, Amari Carter and Robert Knowles for playing time in the wake of the departures of seniors Jaquan Johnson and Sheldrick Redwine. (Bolden isn’t yet enrolled.)
But the most intriguing of the group of second-year defensive players?
Redshirt freshman defensive end Gregory Rousseau.
He was a terror all offseason last year — collecting nine sacks in three spring scrimmages — before he sustained a fractured right ankle injury in the second game of the season, requiring season-ending surgery.
“He has a chance to be special,” defensive line coach Jess Simpson said. “But thinking about it and hoping for it is something different. We have to go do it.”
Had he not been injured, Simpson envisioned Rousseau last year playing on “the third down package for sure. When I looked at Greg, [what stood out was] his ability to gain ground on the edge and get pressure and push the pocket. His long limbs and batting balls and sacking the quarterback.”
Rousseau has a good chance to be UM’s No. 3 end, with Jon Garvin and Virginia Tech transfer Trevon Hill the likely starters. Simpson said he should be fine, health-wise, for spring ball, which begins March 19.
Silvera had 13 tackles, including 1.5 for loss, in seven games and will compete with Pat Bethel, Jon Ford and Chigozie Nnoruka for two starting defensive tackle jobs.
Silvera has “really, really done well and it was cool for him to see those old guys and the way they approached their work,” Simpson said of departing seniors Gerald Willis and Tito Odenigbo.
Miller played in only one game last season (Savannah State) and remains something of a project.
Does Simpson believe he will be able to help this season?
“I want him to be able to help us,” he said. “His body is changing. His knowledge of fundamentals and schemes have changed. Super kid, great heart, wants to do things right.”
As for the four second-year cornerbacks, all will compete with freshmen Christian Williams and Te’Cory Couch for playing time alongside Trajan Bandy.
Ivey and Blades both flashed potential last season.
“Ivey played the most snaps [of the four freshmen], Blades five snaps behind him,” cornerbacks coach Mike Rumph said.
“Al came in and learned nickel and corner, which is amazing for a freshman. I look for three things. I look for a kid that will play hard and urgent, will tackle and communicate. The minute Al and DJ started communicating well, it was up to them to know their assignments going into those weeks. They shared reps going into every week.”
What unique skills do those two corners have?
With Ivey, it’s “his length; that helps him with tackling and taking the ball away and finishing big plays and going after the ball,” Rumph said.
“Al Blades can play almost any position on the field with his physicality and leadership ability and doing what he’s taught consistently every single time. They fit perfectly what we’re doing. They’re only going to get better. They’ve learned a tremendous amount of football from [departing senior] Michael Jackson.”
As for Frierson and Bethel, “Frierson redshirted so he got some good quality work and worked on his confidence and scout team,” Rumph said. “Remember, Michael Jackson went to the scout team early in his career and came back a whole other person. Nigel Bethel the same way, got some scout team work and put on 14 pounds of muscle.”
Frierson will compete with Derrick Smith Jr. for playing time behind Romeo Finley at the striker position.
▪ Former UM coach Mark Richt will make his return to UM’s campus Saturday when he works the annual All-Pro dads event. But he told organizers that he has no intention of speaking to reporters or discussing his decision to retire.