ATHENS — Forty-sixth, 42nd, 57th and 43rd.
That’s Georgia’s national rank in scoring defense (21.0 ppg), total defense (345.3ypg), rushing defense (145.3 ypg) and pass defense (200 ypg), respectively, heading into Saturday’s game against Vanderbilt.
It’s safe to say that’s not where the Bulldogs expected to be at this point of the season, especially when two of their first three opponents happened to be Buffalo and Florida Atlantic. They came into the season nine starters returning from a unit that finished fifth in the nation in total defense last year.
But the Bulldogs’ defenders remain confident and prefer to point instead to the number in the team’s win column.
“Me personally, I know how good we are,” junior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “Some of the numbers that y’all see, I know they’re not the greatest and they’re not like they were last year, but it’s still early. We haven’t done a lot on defense as far as a lot of our packages and stuff like that. So we’ve still got a lot to put in and there are still a lot of plays out there to be made. It’s just the fourth game of the season.”
It will also be the fourth consecutive game in which the Bulldogs haven’t had their full complement of starters on the field. Four returning starters missed the first two games due to suspensions and two more – All-America free safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree – will remain out for one more week.
That’s at least partially to blame for Georgia giving up such an inordinate number of big plays in the early going. In three games the Bulldogs already have given up six plays of 36 or more yards, including scoring plays of 69, 43 and 41 yards.
The Bulldogs say it hasn’t been the absence of the suspended players’ skill sets as much as it has missing their experience of playing together.
“When you blitz and you don’t cover every gap, you are exposed to something popping like it did on that run,” coach Mark Richt said of Florida Atlantic’s 43-yard touchdown run on a dive play. ““We’ve got to be more disciplined. We’ve got to be to be a little bit smarter and be a little better fundamentally.”
Said linebacker Mike Gilliard: “I feel like we’ve got a lot of new faces out there and a lot of it has just been miscommunication and missed assignments. Right now we’re working on that every day. We’re out here trying to fix things like that that one big play could be what causes you to lose the game.”
The positive for Georgia’s defense is it has made good adjustments at halftime. The Bulldogs are allowing an average of 7.7 points in the second half this season. And they’ll be down to just two absentees for Vanderbilt this week.
“As the young guys learn, it’s going to make us that much better as our whole defense, our whole group of starters, is on the field at one time,” said Jones, who missed last Saturday’s game with a strained groin.” That has yet to be. But when it does I think it’s going to be something special.”
Jones now No. 1 NFL prospect
Speaking of Jones, the Bulldogs’ junior linebacker moved up from second to first on Mel Kiper’s “Big Board of 2013 NFL draft prediction. Kiper had Jones as a first-rounder as a redshirt sophomore last year when Jones opted to come back for another year.
Asked if he was already resigned to losing Jones after this season, Richt laughed. “I’d be excited for Jarvis to get drafted that high,” he said. “It’s just a matter of when. But when that day comes I’ll be genuinely thrilled for him.”
O-line taking shape
Starting left guard Dallas Lee (sprained left ankle) remained in a green jersey and mostly ran on the side during Wednesday’s practice. However, he was able to get scrimmage work against the scout team and seems likely to play Saturday.
“I’d guess there’s a good chance but it’s not guaranteed,” Richt said. “You’d had to measure a gimpy Lee against a healthy [Mark] Beard. ”
When Lee is not in the game, the Bulldogs will move left tackle Kenarious Gates inside to guard and bring in Beard, a first-year junior college transfer, to play left tackle. That’s what they did this past Saturday when Lee went out in the second quarter.
“Beard played good enough to prove that he can get in there,” Richt said. “So we might rotate them around in there.”
Calling all punt returners
Georgia continues to experiment with punt returners. The Bulldogs have used four in three games – Damian Swann, Malcolm Mitchell, Chris Conley and Rhett McGowan — and haven’t been particularly pleased with any of them. They’re averaging just 8.8 yards a return and haven’t been making good decisions with regard to when to field, fair catch or return.
“The main thing is that we’re looking for a guy who will field the ball and communicate well,” Richt said. “So I think we’re still searching for that. But it’s a tough job.”
Etc. . . .
Richt said the No. 1 defense, after “not looking too sporty” against the No. 2 offense on Tuesday, was much better on Wednesday. The unit went 8-for-8 in holding the offense scoreless. . . . Richt said sophomore offensive lineman Kolton Houston still has not been cleared to play by the NCAA. . . . Offensive lineman Watts Dantzler (ankle), outside linebackers Josh Dawson (shoulder) and James DeLoach (shoulder) and wide receiver Rantavious Wooten (knee) were limited and/or held out of contact on Wednesday. . . . Asked again by a reporter on Wednesday’s SEC coaches’ teleconference if his team would be motivated by last year’s post-game incident against Georgia, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin quipped, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” . . . UGA coach legend Vince Dooley will be the featured speaker and will sign books today at the Atlanta Press Club Newsmaker Luncheon at The Commerce Club at 191 Peachtree. Tickets are $30 and registration begins at 11:15 a.m.
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