Jacksonville, Fla. — How defenses are structured makes it no surprise that middle linebackers often finish as their team’s leading tackler.
Whether they’re asked to stop the run or defend the pass, those in the middle of the action need to be solid and steady.
Few teams have a pair of inside linebackers as effective as Georgia, Nebraska’s opponent in Wednesday’s Gator Bowl at EverBank Field. The Bulldogs primarily use a 3-4 defense, but their front seven can resemble a 5-2 if both outside linebackers morph into rush ends in passing situations.
Ramik Wilson leads the Southeastern Conference in total tackles with 128 (74 solo). Amarlo Herrera is second in the conference with 107 (53 solo).
Only two other Georgia players have ever led the SEC in total tackles — Whit Marshall in 1995 and Rennie Curran in 2009.
Georgia coach Mark Richt said those two juniors are an ideal pair for the defensive scheme.
“Our defense is designed, like most, for middle linebackers to make the majority of your hits,” Richt said. “Amarlo and Ramik have been a good tandem in there.
“They’re really good friends, they work well together and ... they both make a lot of tackles.”
Wilson and Herrera will be asked to run the defense against a Nebraska offense that, when healthy, has been tough to stop. Especially the offensive element that most concerns Richt — Nebraska’s “tremendous run game.”
Richt said both players have continued to develop through Georgia’s 8-4 season.
“Amarlo has been a great signal-caller,” Richt said. “I see his leadership growing. Ramik is just getting used to playing middle linebacker again. He started out as an outside linebacker for us.”
While they’re focused on the task of shutting down Nebraska’s offense, Richt knows both players — and others on the Georgia defense — have peeked ahead to what could be in store for the 2014 season.
The Bulldogs currently have just one senior starter on defense — end Garrison Smith. Georgia has started six true freshmen on defense this season, and 10 have played. The reasons for the youngsters seeing so much time ranges from depth to injuries to skill.
“I have a gut feeling they’re looking toward next year as well,” Richt said. “They do a good job of leading that defense.”
The steady play and leadership of Wilson and Herrera has allowed the younger linemen, defensive backs and safeties to develop over the course of the season. Both also have been at their best in some of Georgia’s toughest games.
Wilson had 18 tackles, including one sack, against No. 2 Auburn. Some other double-digit games for the 6-foot-2 232-pounder from Tampa: 15 stops against Tennessee, 13 against Clemson and 11 in a 23-20 victory over Florida at EverBank Field.
Herrera, who hails from College Park, Ga., is 6-2 and 12 pounds heavier than Wilson. Herrera had 12 tackles against Florida, Clemson and Georgia Tech; 11 against Tennessee; and 10 versus Vanderbilt.
A primary focus for Wilson and Herrera will be to try and contain Ameer Abdullah, Nebraska’s All-Big Ten running back. Abdullah averaged 6.2 yards per carry in 12 games for the Huskers, rushing for 1,568 total yards and eight touchdowns.
“He’s a very shifty guy who makes people miss,” Richt said. “We can’t break down against a great back like that. Our guys do a good job of making sure that doesn’t happen. They’re pretty sure tacklers.”