For a guy who's done so much, Georgia Bulldogs linebacker Amarlo Herrera sure is forgettable. At least that was the message this summer.
The rising senior's 30 career starts at linebacker, 219 tackles and a slew of other impressive statistics haven't merited much attention this preseason.
At SEC media days last month, fellow Georgia inside linebacker Ramik Wilson garnered first-team All-SEC honors; Herrera did not. Jordan Jenkins, an outside linebacker for the Dawgs, came in with the second team; Herrera did not. College football guru Phil Steele placed another Bulldog linebacker, Leonard Floyd, on the third team of his preseason All-American team. Noticeably absent was Herrera.
While it's strange in and of itself for the senior leader of such a strong position group to be altogether shunned of recognition while the rest of the unit racks up accolades, the oddity is further confounded by Herrera's tenured history of production. The statistics tell part of the story and the numbers don't lie, but the man has been a beast ever since he arrived in Athens in 2011.
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As a true freshman and relatively unheralded member of Georgia's "Dream Team" recruiting class, Herrera immediately asserted himself into the Bulldogs lineup. He didn't start in the 2011 season opener against Boise State, but he played and performed well enough to move into the starting lineup by the second week. He went on to start eight games as a true freshman.
By 2012, he was a staple of one of the nation's most talented defenses. He never became a full-time starter, but he played in all 14 contests and finished fifth on the team in total tackles. The four players ahead of him—Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo—are now entering their second NFL season. Even on a team laced with professional talent, Herrera earned his keep.
Last season, when the defense seemed to crumble around him, Herrera remained a rock. While racking up 112 total tackles (second in the SEC only to teammate Wilson), Herrera proved invaluable in stopping the run and demonstrated a knack for big plays. None was bigger than his forced fumble in the second half of the South Carolina game, which halted a Gamecock drive at the Georgia 34-yard line with the score tied.
With such an impressive three-year career, the lack of outside respect is bothersome—except to Herrera, who uses the non-mentions as motivation. When addressing the subject to Radi Nabulsi of 11alive.com, Herrera made it clear that he takes note of media votes and distinctions but is much more focused on improving as a football player:
I didn't care but I felt disrespected. I felt disrespected about the way I played over all the years and just being left off the list. The list doesn't mean anything; it is just their opinion. And me being left off, I really felt disrespected. I'm going to do what I've done every year, get better and better. I'm playing better every year. Specifically I'm working on better footwork, better technique, just [being] a better football player this year.
Other stars on the Georgia defense are expecting the same old, ever-improving Herrera on the field. Jenkins confessed to Marc Weiszer of the Athens Banner-Herald that he didn't know why Herrera wasn't receiving preseason accolades, adding, "I feel like that's only going to make him so much better because he's going to play with a chip on his shoulder."
That chip combined with an extensive knowledge of Georgia's personnel and schemes, could render Herrera the best player on the defensive side of the ball by season's end. But that might not be anything new.
Last year, it was Herrera who was named Defensive Player of the Year for the Bulldogs despite Wilson's first-team All-SEC validation. Georgia head coach Mark Richt explained Herrera's merits thusly to Seth Emerson of Macon's Telegraph:
Ramik obviously had more tackles, and Ramik statistically had a better year. Not by a lot, but I think that’s part of the reason why Ramik was first team All-SEC. Amarlo is the signal caller, and he has a lot of responsibility to get guys lined up and communicate a lot of things. He led well, so that’s part of it, too. Because of Amarlo’s extra responsibilities and the way he played and the way he led in the summer, that was a big part of it, as well.
Those close to the Georgia program know Herrera's value, and that's as good of a testimony to his play as any.
For this Georgia defense to be successful, the front seven must be dominant. The secondary is still very much a work in progress under the new defensive coordinator, but with the aforementioned host of talented linebackers and a collection of returning linemen, the strength for this defense will be up front.
Who is Georgia's most valuable linebacker?
Look for Herrera once again to serve as the proverbial point guard of the Bulldog defense. He'll rack up tackles, break up passes and hopefully improve in pass coverage (a skill he emphasized specifically to Nabulsi). But much of Herrera's most valuable work will be done before the ball is even snapped. As Georgia rolls out varying defensive packages under Jeremy Pruitt, Herrera and his extensive knowledge and wealth of experience will come into play as he directs traffic from his middle linebacker spot.
Expect a huge season out of this underrated star—even if no one else notices.