ATHENS – Once you get past the standard, astronomic, cartoon-like expectations of spring — Will Georgia go 13-1 next season? Maybe 14-0 if the dang, cheatin’ refs ain’t from Bessemer? — it’s worth noting that Todd Grantham has accomplished something pretty significant in Athens.
Something even bigger than evolving from sideline sideshow on YouTube — and who knew that was possible?
The Bulldogs, the team headed by a former offensive coordinator (Mark Richt), the program that recently had produced the likes of A.J. Green and Matthew Stafford — only to too often get punched in the mouth by Alabama, Florida or LSU — has discovered the key to success in the SEC.
It’s important to note that college football in general, and the SEC in particular, doesn’t mirror the changing NFL. The pros have become pass-happy on offense. That means nickel defenses are now the rule, not the exception (which means old-school middle linebackers such as Curtis Lofton, who neither pass rush nor drop into coverage, can’t command the lofty free-agent dollars they used to).
But defense still rules in the SEC, and this is where Georgia’s return to relevance comes in.
When Grantham — Richt’s fourth choice as defensive coordinator — was hired two years ago, the Dogs were coming off a season in which they ranked 38th in total defense and 63rd in points against. The question wasn’t whether Willie Martinez would get fired, the question was whether he would be able to make it out of the parking lot.
Grantham, now in his third spring with the Dogs, has brought success — the defense ranked fifth in yardage last season, 23rd in scoring and third in third-down efficiency– but more important he has changed the mentality and the focus at Georgia.
When asked what is different now from what he saw on tape from Georgia players when he arrived, Grantham said, “The biggest thing we’ve done is we’ve become more resilient. We’ve learned to play every play. Did guys learn our system better last season? Yes. Were guys more comfortable? Yes. But playing the next play, competing, playing the game the way you’re supposed to, with effort, with toughness — that’s it. We’re tougher mentally. We’re tougher physically.”
There will be no cartoon-like predictions here. But that change in philosophy, combined with the Dogs’ soft-as-nougat-schedule next season, does set up for a potentially — potentially — special season. Also, Grantham seems to have learned from his own head-exploding tendencies.
“I’m driven,” he said, in comical understatement.
Driven — sort of like how Yosemite Sam was driven to get Bugs Bunny, only to inadvertently wire his boot to the dynamite.
Grantham admits he has “lived and learned. There are cameras everywhere.”
Two years ago, one spotted him grabbing his throat and yelling, “You’re gonna [bleepin'] choke” at Florida kicker Chas Henry, as the 21-year-old was lining up for a potential game-winning field goal.
Last season came the postgame skirmish with Vanderbilt coach James Franklin, fueled in part by Grantham’s beliefs that the Commodores were playing dirty.
Days following each incident, Grantham expressed regret. “I’ll use it as a learning experience,” he said of the Franklin confrontation.
So it won’t happen again?
“We’ll see,” he said, smiling. “When you put a hundred hours a week into something, you’ve got a pretty vested interest in it.”
Two embarrassing incidents had the potential to derail things. But Grantham has managed to overcome, well, himself.
The defense succeeded last season despite having 11 different lineups in 14 games because of suspensions and injuries. Georgia has great athletes, but that always has been the case. College teams aren’t defined by the number of stars on letter-of-intent day, they’re defined by how players develop and play.
“In this profession you either get better or worse, so you can’t stop teaching,” Grantham said. “In the pros [as an assistant with Dallas] I saw that if a guy knew that you could make him better and extend his career, you never had issues with him. At this level, you’re obviously developing more. But when players know you have a genuine interest in them and they believe in you, that goes a long ways.”
Grantham spent 11 years in the NFL. When asked if he prefers coaching in college, he said, “Obviously, I wanted to come here. I was friends with Nick Saban and used to watch him when he was at LSU. Systematically, we’re pretty similar. I felt like we could have that kind of success.”
The Dogs aren’t nearly at the Saban level of success. But at least they’ve figured out which side of the ball matters most.
By Jeff Schultz