ATHENS, Ga. – On a cold Saturday in February, Kwame Geathers basically lost a shot at a starting job when a young man from Connecticut signed a paper.
At least that's what everyone seemed to think.
Junior college standout John Jenkins was to be the answer for Georgia’s 3-4 defense, which last season lacked a big, space-eating nose guard that Jenkins, at 350 pounds, was recruited to provide. Hours after Jenkins signed, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham told reporters that the big guy from Gulf Coast (Miss.) Community College would make an “immediate impact.”
“The day we signed Jenkins, I think most of us coaches would have said Jenkins would have probably been the guy,” UGA coach Mark Richt said.
But the spring brought a new development. Geathers, himself a robust 350 pounds and at 6-foot-6 a few inches taller than Jenkins, emerged from the shadows as a redshirt sophomore and figured out what he was doing.
With the motivation of Jenkins’ arrival as a backdrop, big Geathers began playing with an edge he hadn’t shown during his time at Georgia.
“When I felt comfortable with the plays, I felt like the light came on,” Geathers said. “It was just knowing what I was doing. That was the biggest thing. If you don’t know what you’re doing, you’re going to play slow out there. You don’t know where to go.”
Coaches were quick to praise. They named Geathers defensive MVP of the spring and made it clear he was first-string entering the preseason. Nevertheless, that was in the spring -- without Jenkins on campus.
Now nearly three weeks into preseason, Jenkins is on campus and the pecking order still hasn’t changed. Geathers is first. One of the nation’s top JUCO recruits this past year remains second.
John Jenkins is currently sidelined with a hamstring pull.
“I think Kwame’s farther along, just because he understands it a little bit better,” Richt said. “I would say he’s probably in better condition too. John, he’s not in bad condition. For a 350-pound guy to do the running test that we did, you’ve got to be in some kind of condition. But football condition is a little bit different.
“There’s a mental aspect of it too, just to fight through a tough practice, to fight through being coached hard, to fight through trying to figure out what to do. I think once the smoke clears and he really understands exactly what to do down after down, he’ll get much better. He has his moments, but he also has times where he looks lost and he gets knocked off the ball because of it.”
Jenkins’ progress has now been delayed by a hamstring pull that occurred during Friday’s practice. With him out of work less than two weeks before the Boise State game, it basically solidifies that Geathers is going to get the nod in the season opener.
But that might have been the case anyway.
“Kwame is just farther along in his process of being what we need at that position,” Richt said. “I think John is going to be able to, hopefully by game one, be able to go in there and play some real meaningful snaps and make a difference for us. I’m sure as the season goes on John is going to improve, I would say, dramatically as he goes.”
“He’s a good kid,” defensive line coach Rodney Garner said of Jenkins, “who has to continue to work and truly understand the difference in this level versus junior college. Just the intensity of practice, the competitive nature of practice, that’s the thing that makes the SEC such a great league. It is a very, very, very competitive league at this position.”
Geathers missed Friday’s practice after getting hit on the head by a lineman’s knee. He said it wasn’t a concussion, and he was back the next day.
For his part, Geathers continues to notice the praise from coaches and teammates. But he’s determined to not let it change what he’s doing.
“It’s good to hear it,” Geathers said, “but you can’t let that soak in your brain and just cut it off now. You’ve got to go every day, keep working to get better and don’t let that get in your head.”