ATHENS, Ga. – Back in January, Mark Richt couldn’t quite lure Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart to Georgia.
Cornerback Brandon Boykin has been one of the few UGA defensive players with a secure starting spot this season (Photo by UGA Sports Communications).
But he did basically get Smart’s defense.
First-year Bulldogs coordinator Todd Grantham shares with Smart the fact each coached under current Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban, a Bill Belichick discipline who believes in the 3-4 defensive system that Alabama (and now Georgia) each run.
Saban still considers Grantham one of his favorites.
“I’ve always thought Todd was one of the best coaches that we’ve ever had the opportunity to be around,” said Saban, Grantham’s boss in the late 1990s at Michigan State. “He did a fantastic job for us, not only as a good coach and teacher, but he was a very good recruiter and had a lot of passion for the game and was a great person.”
And like Saban at Alabama, the first year for Grantham at Georgia has produced a defense with mixed results. The Bulldogs’ disappointing 5-6 record reflected the team’s overall inconsistency this season, and that’s especially true for a hit-or-miss defense that has been stout at times and poor in others.
In five victories, Georgia allowed an average of 222.2 yards per game – 184.2 per the air and a meager 38 yards per win on the ground.
In six losses, Georgia allowed 401.2 yards per game. The passing yards allowed jumps to 203 per game. Meanwhile, opponents gained 198.2 yards on the ground in each defeat, which is close to UGA’s 190 total rushing yards in five victories.
Overall, it has added up to middle-of-the-pack SEC rankings in rush (5th), pass (6th), total (4th) and scoring defense (7th).
Statistically, Georgia improved in each of the four categories from 2009 to 2010, though not in huge leaps.
Todd Grantham's first 3-4 UGA defense has allowed about 25 fewer yards per game than Nick Saban's first 3-4 defense at Alabama.
“We’ve been near the top of the list in SEC rankings in a lot of areas,” defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. “But we’ve just given up to many big plays and explosive plays. People not really tuning in to what their assignments are has really hurt us in the games."
“If you look at some games, (we’ve been) really good,” Grantham said. “Other games you’d really like to play better.”
The worst of those was the most recent. Auburn’s 463 total yards Saturday were the most Georgia has allowed in a contest all season, and 315 came on the ground behind some successful end-around plays and 30 total rushes by bruising Heisman Trophy candidate quarterback Cam Newton.
Again for Grantham's Bulldogs, it tended to come down to assignments.
“They had over 100 yards of rushing just by running the reverse,” Bulldogs linebacker Justin Houston said. “That is us blowing our assignments. We weren’t where we were supposed to be, and they capitalized on our mistakes. … Some guys aren’t as focused as they need to be. That hurt today and has hurt us all season.”
“It comes over time,” safety Bacarri Rambo said. “Not trying to make this as an excuse, but this is the first year we’re learning this defense. It’s not difficult, but then it’s not easy. You’ve got to study, keep studying film, asking coaches questions and keep trying to learn to get better.”
Grantham said he expected and now acknowledges “growing pains” that have accompanied the inconsistency.
Starters have rotated, especially in the secondary, as Bulldogs defensive coaches continue to evaluate their players, who in turn, are still proving their grasp of the system.
“I guess it’s pretty natural for that to happen,” Richt said. “There’s always a learning curve. When something is brand new, it takes a while.”
For comparison, look at Saban’s first team at Alabama. A year before an SEC West title and two years before a national championship, the Crimson Tide went 7-6 in 2007.
In the first season employing a new defense with inherited personnel, Saban’s squad allowed 345.5 total yards per game. Grantham’s defense at Georgia this season has allowed an average of 319.8.
“All things considered,” Dobbs said, “I think we’ve done fairly well.”
A second year doesn't guarantee success. Alabama’s dramatic defensive improvement in year two under Saban had a lot to do with the addition of mammoth junior college nose tackle Terrence Cody -- and other talented newcomers -- to help anchor the defense.
So with Georgia in the midst of a bye week before playing Georgia Tech, Grantham is hitting the road Friday night to catch a high school game. In his mind, “The season coming up after this last game is important: Recruiting season.”
Georgia’s 2011 signing class will be the first that Grantham has had an opportunity to recruit to his 3-4 scheme. That's important because the Bulldogs’ existing personnel wasn’t a perfect fit in year one, especially on the defensive front.
“We didn’t really have the people at all positions,” Dobbs said. “The d-line, we didn’t have that big, big nose guard that people want in a 3-4. We might have been undersized, but I think we held up well as a unit. And I think the defense did pretty well. The season really doesn’t show that. Some games really didn’t show how far we’ve come along.”
Grantham’s glum assessment is “We’ve still got a ways to go.”
But he sounds eager to start the second year with Georgia’s defense after enduring the ups and downs of the first.
“We’ve just got to continue to develop the guys we’ve got,” Grantham said, “continue to work them. And I do see progress with some guys. Some of the young guys that we’re playing right now, they’re going to get better, and they’re going to be OK in the future.”
“Going into next season,” Richt said, “I think we’ll be a lot better.”