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Georgia Defensive Player to Watch: Defensive lineman Jalen Carter

Carter was one of only a few impactful players up front who returned for the defending champs, but their defense has not skipped a beat.

Photo by Jeffrey Vest/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Ryan Day’s Ohio State Buckeyes are heading into the belly of the beast on New Year’s Eve, as they look to knock off Kirby Smart’s Georgia Bulldogs in the defending champs’ own backyard. As if UGA needed any additional help, this year’s Peach Bowl is being played in Atlanta, creating an inherent home field advantage for the Dawgs.

But a team as talented as the one from Columbus, OH should never be counted out. The Big Ten underdogs have an opportunity to shock the college football world, but it will take an aggressive gameplan and 60 minutes of high-level execution.

Both (gameplan and execution) failed OSU in their last game — a defeat at the hands of TTUN. Now they will face a team which, frankly, needs no help in beating opponents senseless. So the Buckeyes must evaluate and address what failed them in late November, on both sides of the ball.

From a defensive perspective, Ohio State coaches, players, and even fans know that big plays – or “explosives” – were at fault for their loss to the Wolverines. Great. Now that we’ve all pointed out the obvious, how does OSU prevent those big plays from becoming long, back-breaking touchdowns?

Georgia is basically just a souped-up version of the other Big Ten team in this College Football Playoff, so Jim Knowles’ gameplan will likely not differ that much from the one we saw in November. However, that poor performance was primarily a result of horrendous execution and failed assignments — not some half-brained plan of attack. If the Buckeyes eliminate mental mistakes and shore up their tackling, I believe that Knowles’ defense can at least limit the effectiveness of any offense in this CFP. Easier said than done though, especially against the Bulldogs.

Offensively, Ohio State’s recent struggles are much harder to swallow. A unit led by quarterback and Heisman finalist C.J. Stroud and loaded with skill position stars such as Marvin Harrison Jr. should never have trouble scoring points. But this OSU offense, despite being ranked No. 2 nationally in points (scored) per game, has not been consistently crisp down the stretch.

The Northwestern game was a slog, the trip to Maryland left much to be desired, and the second half against TTUN was... shocking? Confusing? An abject failure? Call it whatever you like, but Day’s offense looked completely lost. And as a result, the Buckeyes will now be tasked with rediscovering their swagger against one of the best defenses in college football.

Georgia ranks No. 8 nationally in total defense and No. 2 in scoring defense. This, after the team lost their top four tacklers from a season ago — in addition to first overall draft pick Travon Walker and fellow first-rounder Jordan Davis. The amount of pure talent UGA has on that side of the ball is truly absurd.

But the Bulldogs are not without subtle flaws. They are tied with Ohio State in team interceptions – putting them outside the top-50 – and sometimes struggle to get after the quarterback. Smart’s defense has totaled just 26 sacks in 13 games, ranking outside the top-75. Sure, they don’t have to blitz a ton to be effective, and sacks are not entirely reflective of pressure created, but still... this defense bleeds. The players are human.

With the possible exception of defensive lineman Jalen Carter.

A candidate to go first overall in the 2023 NFL Draft, Carter is one of the more impressive athletes you will ever find — on a football field or elsewhere. This 6-foot-3, 300-pound destroyer of dreams might even turn out to be a mutant disguised as a Georgia Bulldog, but at the very least, he is the closest thing to Aaron Donald since... well, AD himself. Regardless of whether or not he is a legitimate Space Jam monstar, we do know this much to be true about Carter: He is undeniably good at football, cementing his status as the Peach Bowl’s Defensive Player to Watch.

Hailing from the Sunshine State, Carter was a five-star recruit in the 2020 class. 247Sports ranked him as the No. 3 defensive tackle and No. 18 player overall, leading to no shortage of suitors for his elite services. Interestingly enough, Carter rose in national recruiting rankings despite making the switch from offense to defense prior to his senior season. That’s right. This big man was primarily a tight end until 2019! Florida schools were obviously in on Carter, but he could likely smell their respective dumpster fires from his own backyard. So the freak athlete committed to Georgia, joining a dynamic defensive core.

As a true freshman, Carter played in all 10 games (pandemic) and earned two starts. Pretty impressive, considering he belonged to the same position group as older players like Devonte Wyatt, Travon Walker, and the aforementioned Davis. But there were plenty of reps to go around, and Carter earned his fair share. He finished with just 14 total tackles, but an impressive 13 QB pressures. His impact was felt and clearly noticeable, leading to an increased role as part of an otherworldly 2021 UGA defense.

Led by five first-round draft picks, the Bulldogs surrendered a paltry 10.2 PPG last season. Carter was consistently involved in the action, despite again splitting reps. Not even listed as a full-time starter due to his team’s ridiculous rotation, the star sophomore was still a fixture in opponents’ backfields, racking up 8.5 tackles for loss and 33 QB pressures. Carter “only” added three sacks, but that is not what his game is about. He is a space-eating, block-deflecting, gap-shooting disruptor. His mere presence on the field makes 10 other players exponentially better. And last year, he managed to stand out on a defense which featured a 2004 Miami-level collection of talent.

Georgia obviously won last year’s CFP, and though that could cause some championship-winning returnees tend to rest on their laurels, Carter has returned with a vengeance, leading the Bulldogs’ 2022 defense (and repeat title chase). In 11 games played, big #88 has totaled 29 tackles and 7.5 TFL, while also forcing two fumbles.

But remember, as an interior defensive lineman, he is not likely to stuff the stat sheet with traditional “counting” stats. He is a disruptor and a run stuffer, with the added ability to rush if/when called upon. His presence in the middle of the defensive line has helped UGA limit opponents to an average of 77 rushing yards pre game. And this is with virtually no returning experience up front, outside of Carter.

He has been a one-man wrecking crew; one who will absolutely challenge the Ohio State front throughout this weekend’s Peach Bowl.

It is not hyperbole to say that Jalen Carter might be a generational talent. Credit goes to his coaches as well, but we’re talking about an interior defensive lineman who significantly impacts (and sometimes even changes) his opponent’s entire gameplan. And he has continued to do so, despite losing five first-round teammates from a year ago! Carter and Kelee Ringo are the next guys up, and I would not be surprised if the block-shedding, hard-hitting, quarterback-lifting lineman is drafted first overall in late April.

It is not a stretch to say that Ryan Day’s team will have its hands full on Saturday night. But Ohio State is just as talented as the defending champs — if not more so. Their chance of success will hinge on gameplan and execution, as well as their ability to limit the effectiveness of Georgia’s stars. Carter is certainly one of them, so much will be asked of Justin Frye’s position group. But I have faith in the boys up front. And I have faith in the Buckeyes. It feels like Ohio against the world, so here’s hoping the Scarlet and Gray can make a run another special run as an underdog 4-seed.

Go Bucks!