The transition from the familiar ways of Rodney Garner to a new approach under Chris Wilson is about complete for Georgia’s defensive linemen seven months after the position coach came aboard.
“All the guys are comfortable with him now,” redshirt junior nose guard Mike Thornton said. “When he first got here we were all like, ‘Uh, we kind of like the Coach G way.’ He’s done a great job as far as coming in and grabbing our attention and actually showing us his knowledge and applying it. We’ve been using it every day and I feel like that’s only going to make us a better defensive line.”
The “Coach G way” was tough love that was viewed by most as serving the Bulldogs well for 15 years before Garner left for Auburn, his alma mater, last December.
Wilson was hired from Mississippi State, where he was defensive coordinator the past two seasons and coached the defensive line for three.
“The biggest thing is I have a relationship more with the guys than we had early,” Wilson said. “We coach them hard, but we care about them. You kind of know how each guy responds, so that’s really been a blessing.”
Wilson was the defensive play-caller at Mississippi State through the regular season.
“Chris has a great passion for the game and is a great teacher,” Mississippi State coach Dan Mullen said last month. “Really, he makes a positive impact on those young men’s lives that’s he’s going to affect. Both he and his family are going to take them as part of their family and help their development.”
Junior college transfer defensive end Toby Johnson called Wilson “one of the toughest guys I’ve ever been around.”
Players say Wilson demands that his linemen do things properly, and in the words of end Sterling Bailey, give “relentless effort.” And if they don’t do it exactly right, at least do it playing hard.
“Just open up a can of it and get after it,” Wilson said.
“Technique and effort,” Thornton said. “That’s all he ever talks about is technique and effort, technique and effort. Everything else will come in play, but if you can play fast, play hard and have great technique and fundamentals, then at the end of the day you’ll be fine.”
Said defensive end Ray Drew: “Effort is what you call a non-negotiable in his room.”
Spring talk of using a deep rotation on the defensive line has carried over into the preseason.
“That’s coach Wilson’s goal just to have us fresh so we won’t have to take 100 snaps a game,” said senior defensive end Garrison Smith.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he wanted to rely on rotating on the defensive line before this season.
“I’ve always been at that conclusion,” Grantham said. “You’ve also got to have guys that you trust, too, so it’s two-fold. You’re not going to put a guy in the game that you don’t feel is ready. You’ve got to say how many available guys do you have? I control that. That’s me. I do that. Then the coach is going to do what we decide as a staff. My philosophy is you play a lot of guys, but you’ve got to have guys you feel you can depend upon to do that.”
Grantham said the defensive staff talks about a plan for playing guys during the week before a game. That could be that a player gets 30 snaps a game, or another will be in on first and second downs and yet another will go in on third down.
The actual substitutions are made on gamedays by the defensive line coach.
“We have a plan but he executes that plan. That’s one of his job descriptions,” Grantham said. “To me, that’s a game within the game. You’ve got to mix and match. … If you micromanage, you’re hurting your team, you hurt your unit in more than just that area. When I did it [most recently as line coach with the Dallas Cowboys], that was a part of the game and you’ve got to manage.”
Wilson said Saturday he would be comfortable using up to seven players in a game.
“We’re not going to line up just three guys up front and play,” head coach Mark Richt said. “We’ve got to roll ’em.”
Georgia lost mammoth nose guards John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers to the NFL. Richt said the top players so far on the defensive line have been Smith, Bailey, Thornton, Johnson and, before he sustained a concussion, Chris Mayes.
“We’ve got some big guys in John Taylor and John Atkins,” center David Andrews said, “but no one like Kwame and John, but we’ve got a lot of speed up front, a lot of quick guys and a lot of still strong guys for being big guys but not as towering as John and Kwame, but they’ve still got a lot of strength, but very explosive. I think that’s a dangerous combo.”
Taylor, a redshirt freshman, made noise in the spring. Now Johnson is creating some buzz with his athleticism for his 6-foot-4, 312-pound frame.
Taylor, Johnson and Thornton can each play end and nose.
“Every day we’re rotating different guys in different packages,” Thornton said. “We definitely have a lot of depth this year, more than I feel like we’ve had since my freshmen year.”