ATHENS Georgia football rising senior Malik Herring started the season on the bench and ended it as the top returning defensive linemen in the SEC, per advanced metrics.
Coach Kirby Smart wasn't and isn't going to have it any other way.
It is Smart who has pushed Herring to the verge of greatness, ensuring the Forsyth product get the best out of himself and make the most of his talents on the field.
"Malik can be a good player, (but) he's gotta hone in and do the little things right, and he's gotta be a little more mature and serious about things to be the player we want him to be,"Smart said last spring."He's talented, though, and he's played well. He's just gotta mature some."
Pro Football Focus, which grades players each week, has Herring as the top-ranked SEC defensive lineman in its Top 25. Herring comes in at No. 7 with Alabama's Chritisian Barmore second among league players at No. 12.
The 6-foot-3, 280-pound Herring showed just how much he'd grown in the 26-14 win over Baylor in the Sugar Bowl. Herring, starting in place of departing senior Tyler Clark, had five tackles, a pass break-up and 1.5 tackles for loss.
Herring platooned all season in the Bulldogs' deep defensive front. It was a unit that set the tone for the nation's best run defense with its sound gap integrity. Georgia didn't allow a rushing TD until the 10th game of the season.
But at the start of the 2019 campaign, on the road trip to Vanderbilt, Herring did not play.
"We talked about it after the game," Smart said the next week. "If he continues to use practice and get better, he'll play."
Herring did just that, earning nine starts and finishing with 24 QB hurries, third-best on the team.
The Bulldogs have lost reliable seniors off the 2019 D-Line. Most notably, seniors Michael Barnett, David Marshall and Clark have moved on.
But Herring is one of a handful of defensive linemen coming back with star potential that figure to play in the NFL one day.
Nosetackle Jordan Davis was a Freshman All-American in 2018 and continued his run-stuffing ways last season. Freshman Travon Walker overcame in-season wrist surgery to make highlights, including the game-clinching sack at Auburn.
Then there are the fellow seniors. Devonte Wyatt was second on the team with 27 QB hurries. Justin Young played in nine of 14 games and had his moments. Then there's Julian Rochester, a fifth-year senior after qualifying for a redshirt, playing just four games after coming off knee surgery.
This, even though the Bulldogs finished the regular season leading the conference in total defense, scoring defense, rushing defense and pass efficiency defense.
Ultimately, safety J.R. Reed was named an All-American by one outlet, and linebacker Monty Rice and cornerback Eric Stokes were second-team All-SEC picks by the AP.
But all was silent among the defensive tackles, nosetackles, and defensive ends from an awards perspective.
Smart has said he prefers his players make noise with their helmets, so UGA players won't likely be tooting their own horns during the offseason.
But those who watch and grade film have taken note, and Herring leads the way on a defensive front that could dominate the SEC in 2020.
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