Herrera makes presence felt early

Jeff Hurndon Photography
Former North Clayton star Amarlo Herrera didn’t take long to become a significant contributor at Georgia. The sophomore already has 15 career starts.

Jeff Hurndon Photography Former North Clayton star Amarlo Herrera didn’t take long to become a significant contributor at Georgia. The sophomore already has 15 career starts.

Last season, it was emotional for Amarlo Herrera. The North Clayton graduate couldn’t help but get wrapped up in the spotlight and pressure, the hype and the magnitude of the SEC Championship game, and he and his Georgia Bulldogs teammates unraveled in the moment. They lost 42-10 to LSU, getting out-scored 32-3 in the second half.

LSU advanced to the BCS National Championship Game. Georgia and Herrera advanced into college football bowl season oblivion.

SEC Championship Game

No. 2 Alabama vs. No. 3 Georgia

Saturday, 4 p.m., Georgia Dome, CBS

“We all know what happened in that game,” Herrera said. “It showed us how the SEC Championship is, what that atmosphere is like.”

There should be no surprises for Herrera and No. 3 Georgia (11-1) going into tomorrow’s SEC Championship against No. 2 Alabama (11-1) at 4 p.m. in the Georgia Dome.

Indeed, the biggest surprise may be that Herrera has developed into such a significant contributor so early in his college career.

The 6-foot-2, 245-pound sophomore middle linebacker’s 65 tackles are fourth on the team. He has two tackles for loss, one fumble recovery and returned an interception for a touchdown. He’s played in all 12 games this season, starting in seven.

Add that to last season’s 14 games, eight starts and 37 tackles, and Herrera has played more football in his first two years than even he expected.

“When I got here, everything changed,” he said. “I was just coming in looking to play. It happened so fast.”

Yes, one day Herrera was Clayton County’s elite linebacker — tallying a mind-boggling 155 tackles his senior season and capturing Clayon News Daily Clayton County Player of the Year — the next he was signing his national letter of intent with Georgia as part of the “Dream Team” recruiting class two years ago.

Except Herrera didn’t get much attention. He took his four stars and let Ray Drew, Isaiah Crowell and Jay Rome steal the recruiting drama. Herrera was one of Georgia’s first commitments for the Class of 2011 and never wavered despite a turbulent Bulldogs season.

Now, Crowell is gone. Drew and Rome have combined for just one start this season. Only John Jenkins (19) and Malcolm Mitchell (17) have more career starts than Herrera (15) among the “Dream Team” class, and Jenkins was recruited out of community college.

“I knew I was going to play,” Herrera said. “Not as much as I did, of course.”

That Herrera would play and make an impact at Georgia was a foregone conclusion to North Clayton football coach Max Wiltz, who was defensive coordinator during Herrera’s high school career.

Wiltz noticed immediately that Herrera was different. He saw it in Herrera’s work ethic, his leadership, his maturity. He saw it in the ferocity that Herrera approached offseason workouts. He saw it in how serious Herrera seemed to approach all aspects of the game.

“Everything was Division I about him,” Wiltz said. “That’s how he acted, how he talked.”

And, of course, Wiltz saw it in Herrera’s production on the field as the leader of a defense that allowed less than seven points per game during the regular season in his senior year.

“I watched him win some games almost by himself,” Wiltz said. “Guys would follow his lead. To be honest, he just led and we just followed. The defense was on his shoulders. He had pride in that. Of course, we’re searching for the next Amarlo.”

The first Herrera will be all over the field tomorrow trying to stop the Crimson Tide and lead Georgia to a spot in the BCS National Championship game.

If he does, he’d join fellow North Clayton alum Cap Burnett and D.J. Shockley as SEC champions at Georgia. Burnett was on the Bulldogs’ 2002 team that defeated Arkansas. Shockley was the starting quarterback for Georgia on its 2005 team that defeated LSU.

But with a win tomorrow, Herrera could eclipse them both.

“We know we have a lot to gain and a lot to lose,” Herrera said. “We’re just trying to take it one step at a time starting with the SEC Championship. If we win this, we control our own destiny.”