Georgia Bulldogs defensive end Garrison Smith talks with the media during the 2013 SEC football media days at the Hyatt Regency in Hoover, Ala., earlier this month. (Marvin Gentry-USA TODAY Sports)
This is an offseason of rebuilding for the Georgia Bulldog defense.
With 12 players who started at one time or another gone from last season (mostly for the NFL), the roster is undergoing a complete overhaul. Georgia didn’t merely lose 12 players from its defense, it lost 12 really good players.
Those 12 players accounted for more than 63 percent of the team’s total tackles and more than 70 percent of the team’s tackles for losses in 2012. Combine that consistency with big play production in the form of the 23 sacks, 8 interceptions, 13 forced fumbles and 10 fumble recoveries, and things go from bad to worse for the Dawgs. Accordingly, it’s a gross understatement to say that defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and his staff will have their hands full when camp opens in a few weeks.
But the situation may not be as dire as the statistics indicate. As significant as those players’ contributions were in 2012, they came in a relatively disappointing collective effort. Players like Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree had numerically dominant seasons, but the defense as whole underperformed expectations last season.
Grantham’s defense had a breakout year in 2011, allowing just 277 yards 20.6 points per game. With loads of talent returning in 2012, the defense was expected to be the Bulldogs’ calling card. Many even tabbed the Bulldogs to have the best defense in the conference. That was not the case. Georgia’s defensive unit surrendered an average of 358 yards per game while narrowly improving in points allowed (19.6 per game).
To be fair, the defense had its moments. An inspired effort against Vanderbilt limited the Commodores to just a field goal. Big plays against Florida held the Gators off long enough to secure a 17-9 victory.
But, the defensive unit that was supposed to be one of the best in the nation was inconsistent at best. Buffalo and Florida Atlantic combined to score 43 points against the Dawgs. A Tennessee team that went on to finish 1-7 in SEC play put up 44 points in Athens. Kentucky scored 24 points against the Bulldogs but averaged just 9.3 points in their seven additional games against SEC opponents. Alabama ultimately won the SEC Championship Game and the right to play for the National Championship because the Bulldog defense couldn’t stop the Crimson Tide’s running game (the Tide racked up 350 yards on the ground).
The story of last summer was Georgia’s defense. There were questions being asked, but the questions were laced with positive assumptions. Just how good can this defense be? Can the Bulldogs limit opponents to 10 points or fewer in 2012? Who will join Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree as first-round draft selections?
This year, the questions take a different tone. Who will anchor the nose tackle position? Can Jordan Jenkins fill the void left by Jarvis Jones? Who will join Damian Swann in the defensive backfield? In short: can this team rebuild?
Mark Richt acknowledged these questions last week at SEC Media Days, but expressed confidence that Georgia had the talent to answer those questions. Those further removed from day-to-day operations of the team seem to have forgotten about that talent. The same outsiders who celebrated the now-departed defensive stalwarts last summer seem to have forgotten the hoopla that accompanied the highly touted recruits who have been waiting to take the field.
Does Georgia need to rebuild its defense in 2013? Absolutely. But it’s hard to condemn young talent that was stuck behind NFL draft picks. It’s hard to write off players who were buried in the depth chart behind All-Americans.
Perhaps the best thing for this next generation of Junkyard Dawgs is the persistent questioning. From the outside, that questioning is indicative of doubt and a lack of expectation. Within the program, however, those questions are motivation.