Athens – Under Willie Martinez, the default mechanism was to insist Georgia’s defense was actually better than it looked. Todd Grantham’s way is reality-based.
Asked after Saturday’s G-Day scrimmage to grade his defense’s performance in 2010, Grantham said: “I would say average. If you go back and look, we were fourth [among SEC teams] in total yards [yielded], and we did improve our turnover ratio.”
Then: “We didn’t play as well as we wanted.”
This from a coordinator who’d overseen a clear upgrade. In 2009, the final season under Martinez, Georgia was 38th nationally in total defense, 63rd in scoring defense and 73rd in pass-efficiency defense. In Year 1 under Grantham, the Bulldogs were 23rd, 36th and 48th in those categories. And Georgia as a team went from 118th nationally in turnover margin to 19th.
So why wasn’t Grantham happier? Because Georgia didn’t win. Defensive improvements notwithstanding, the Bulldogs slid from 8-5 to 6-7. They lost to South Carolina 17-6, to Mississippi State 24-12 and to Central Florida 10-6. You couldn’t really hang any of those losses on the D, but this remains a team game. A championship team is going to have to win a game 14-10.
Grantham’s to-do list for 2011: “Our situational defense has to improve. We’ve got get off the field on third down. We’ve got to make them kick field goals in the red zone. We’ve got to win in the fourth quarter. A lot of our losses were one-possession ballgames. We’ve got to finish, and to me that’s mental toughness — making the play no matter what.”
Speaking of which: No matter how schematically sound a defense might be, it’s only as good as its playmakers. Grantham’s 3-4 alignment turned Justin Houston from a defensive end to an outside linebacker to a star, but Houston was the only Bulldog capable of rushing the passer. (Of Georgia’s 24 sacks, Houston had 10.) He declared for the NFL draft, which means new stars must be found. Two possibilities were on display Saturday.
Kwame Geathers, projected as a backup nose tackle, wrought up-front havoc, and Alec Ogletree delivered big hits as an inside linebacker. (And let’s note that Ray Drew, the signee who figures to become the new Houston, hasn’t yet enrolled.)
Of Ogletree, who played last season as a safety, Grantham said: “There’s no question in my mind he’s a linebacker. You could see that when we went through the cut-ups [video of each player].”
Of Geathers, who was the spring’s defensive MVP and who could form a fearsome tandem with JUCO transfer John Jenkins: “It’s always important to keep your big guys fresh … You always find ways to play guys to help you win.”
Any chance that, with two such defensive tackles, the 3-4 advocate might switch to a 4-3? Said Grantham, smiling: “No.”
Spring games can distort, but this much was obvious: The Bulldogs now know where they’re supposed to be and what they’re supposed to do. The switch to the 3-4 forced a lot of guys to think before acting, which isn’t always the desired course. As Ogletree said: “We’ll be able to play much faster now.”
Grantham: “Anytime you have continuity, that’s good. From Day 1 [of spring practice], our communication was better. The guys were always talking to each other, and that allows you to play fast.”
Georgia’s defense in 2009 was an embarrassment. Its defense in 2010 was better but, as Grantham conceded, not good enough. This defense has a chance to be good enough. The 3-4 is no longer a foreign concept, and this coordinator has had a chance to move and recruit personnel to fit his design. (Another example: DeAngelo Tyson, a nose man last season, has moved to end.)
Last season brought moments when Grantham’s men were put on the back foot — the first halves against Arkansas and Florida; the second half against Auburn; the whole game against Georgia Tech — but much of that was a function of newness. The shakedown cruise has ended. There should be nothing average about Georgia’s defense this fall.
By Mark Bradley