AT A GLANCE
POSITION COACH: Travian Robertson (3rd season at GSU)
RETURNING STARTERS: Senior DE Hardrick Willis (6 sacks in 2020, school’s all-time leader with 12), super-senior NG Dontae Wilson (3.5 tackles for loss, 1 fumble recovery in 2020), sophomore DE Jeffery Clark (6 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks in 2020)
RETURNING CONTRIBUTORS: Junior DE Tre Moore (1 sack in 2020, named Best Defensive Player during 2021 spring practice), junior NG Akeem Smith (3 tackles for loss in 2020), sophomore NG Thomas Gore (4.5 tackles for loss, 3.5 sacks in 2020), sophomore Javon Denis (3 tackles for loss in 9 games in 2020), sophomore Miles Dickens
NEW NAMES: DE Tylon Dunlap, DE Omarion Hammond, NG Fuches Lewis II, DE Jamarion Ellis (all freshmen)
KEY LOSSES: None
As will become a theme throughout these position previews, the Georgia State defensive line returns a lot of depth – as well as each starter – from the 2020 team. Hardrick Willis and four-year starter Dontae Wilson (returning for his super-senior campaign) will continue to set the tone as the senior leaders of this unit. Every sack Willis tallies in his final season will add to his school record total and Wilson will be counted on to continue to anchor the defense as he has done through his entire career in Atlanta. Meanwhile, Jeffery Clark returns, ready to improve on what was an encouraging 2020 for the freshman out of McEachern.
As impressive as the pedigree of the starters for Georgia State’s defensive line is, the fact remains that the depth of this unit is the strength. Both Akeem Smith and Thomas Gore stepped up in 2020 to provide solid rotational reps at nose guard, to the point that Dontae Wilson kicked outside for a time and played defensive end for an extended amount of the season. The current expectation is that Wilson will return to his spot on the interior, but Smith and Gore’s hard work on the inside – a lot of the time in ways that doesn’t show up on a stat sheet – certainly could give defensive coordinator Nate Fuqua and Coach Robertson another option to lean on over the 12-game season.
On the outside, starters Willis and Clark can be spelled by any number of contributors old and new. Javon Denis, Tre Moore and Miles Dickens feel the best bet among returning players to push for snaps. Denis logged the most playing time of the trio in 2020 while Moore missed almost the entire season before returning for the LendingTree Bowl win over Western Kentucky, recording a sack in the 4th quarter. Dickens has played sparingly in his years at Georgia State, but as a former three-star athlete out of high school, he remains one of the highest-rated recruits the Panthers have brought in. His potential still remains intriguing as he enters his redshirt-sophomore campaign.
Of the incoming freshmen, Tylon Dunlap may have the slightest leg up for the fact that he enrolled early and came to Atlanta in January of this year, participating in spring practice. But the truth is freshmen are unknown quantities and it remains to be seen who wins playing time. The eventual rise of Jeffery Clark and Thomas Gore in 2020 wasn’t known at this point of the year 12 months ago – it’s up to the four newcomers to impress in camp. But one thing we know for sure is that as deep as the returning DL unit is, Coach Elliott welcomes competition and he’s going to play the best players – being a true freshman isn’t going to stop one of them from earning a spot playing in the defensive trenches in 2021.