ATHENS – Ten months ago, Mark Richt stood in front of a room in Butts-Mehre Hall and pronounced, “Today is a great day for Georgia.”
Notwithstanding that those words came at an orchestrated media event — two weeks after a bowl loss to Michigan State (please forget) and two weeks before national signing day (please come) – nobody could dispute the sentiment. In the room with Richt were 15 players who announced they were bypassing the NFL draft to return for another season. Nine played on defense. Another returnee was Jarvis Jones, who was attending a football camp that day.
Expectations were high for Georgia this season primarily for one reason: defense. There were nine returning starters. There were nine upperclassmen. There were four players projected to go as high as the first round in the next draft. There was a defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham, lauded to such a great degree after the last season that he was given a contract extension, a raise and the title of associate head coach.
So how many games has the Georgia defense shown up for this season?
Cornerback Sanders Commings said when he looked around the room at that January photo, “I was thinking national championship.”
Now the Dogs need help just to get out of their division. They’ll beat Kentucky Saturday. This game is more about trying to show that preseason expectations won’t amount to more empty Georgia promises — because otherwise, forget about the Florida game in two weeks.
The defensive rankings scream mediocrity. Expected to be among the top five units nationally, they’re not even top five in the SEC. They’re giving up more yards per games than Ole Miss and Missouri. They have fewer sacks than Kentucky.
With so much projected NFL talent on the roster, it’s not unfair to pose the question: Are players thinking more about the next level than the next game?
It’s not uncommon for agents — excuse me: “family advisers” — to get inside players’ heads about what pro scouts might be looking for, clouding more pressing matters like that week’s game plan.
“Not at all,” Richt said when asked if players might have lost focus because of their pro prospects. “Everybody wants to win. A lot of guys have an NFL future, but they know the better we play as a team, the better everybody looks. Even when we had that press conference in this room, I didn’t tell them what to say. As a matter of fact, I was trying to find out why they wanted to stay, and a big part was because they wanted to have a great season.”
He has alluded to “communication problems.” That seems unusual for a defense with so many returning starters and seniors.
“I don’t want to get into making excuses about anything,” Richt said. “The bottom line is we should be doing better.”
Better than this: eighth in scoring defense in the SEC, ninth in total defense, 10th against the run, ninth against the pass, 10th in interceptions, ninth in takeaways, ninth in third-down defense, 11th in sacks.
Jarvis Jones (ankle, groin) hasn’t been healthy. Suspensions to four starters (Commings, Bacarri Rambo, Alec Ogletree, Chase Vasser) prevented the starting unit from being together until the fifth game.
But that doesn’t explain allowing 199 rushing yards to Buffalo. Or seeing Missouri connect for early touchdown passes of 41 and 69 yards. Or Florida Atlantic driving to two TDs on its first four possessions, with a likely third scoring drive ending with a fumble. Or Tennessee totaling 478 yards and 44 points (even if half that was set up by Georgia turnovers). Or South Carolina driving for touchdowns on its first two possessions and rushing for 230 yards.
Ask what the problem is, you’ll hear general vague responses: mental mistakes, missed assignments, overaggressiveness.
“Sometimes when you have a lot of veteran guys back, you’re all hungry and anxious to make plays,” Commings said. “Sometimes you just have to let plays come to you. I think we realize that.”
Defense was supposed to carry them. Somebody didn’t get the memo.
By Jeff Schultz
Some recent ramblings