Bulldogs starting to settle into new defensive scheme

A thick three-ring binder was tucked under Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin’s right arm after practice Monday night. The contents: the defense’s scouting report for Saturday’s game at Kentucky.

Based on the past two games, Boykin and his teammates are doing a better job of translating the week’s lessons from the meeting rooms and practice fields to the games in their first season in the Bulldogs’ new 3-4 defense.

“I think we finally reached midseason form,” cornerback Sanders Commings said. “Everybody lines up in the right places. I think coaches have simplified our gameplan a little bit so there won’t be any confusion on the field. We’re definitely playing with a lot more confidence and swagger.”

Georgia, even after a 1-4 start, has moved up to third in the Southeastern Conference in total defense behind only LSU and Alabama.

“Our goal is to be No. 1 in this conference,” said outside linebacker Justin Houston, who leads the SEC with 61/2 sacks. “We’ve got a long way to improve, but the last couple of games we’ve been making improvements and hopefully we can keep it going.”

Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose last collegiate coaching job was under current Alabama coach Nick Saban at Michigan State from 1996-98, said Alabama also endured an adjustment period when Saban arrived in 2007 and installed his 3-4 scheme.

The Crimson Tide went 7-6 in Saban’s debut season and ranked 31st nationally in total defense, allowing 345.5 yards per game.

“I knew there was a possibility of a learning curve,” said Grantham, who spent the past 11 seasons in the NFL. “You’ve seen that earlier in the year because we’d play really good and then all of a sudden we give up a gimme play, a big play and those explosive plays early in the year. The fact that we didn’t win the game took away from a lot of good things that we’ve done. The difference in the last two games is we’ve won the game, which is a positive and the most important thing, but really we’ve minimized the explosive plays.”

The Bulldogs are allowing 75.5 fewer yards per game and 10.3 fewer points than after seven games in 2009, but then-coordinator Willie Martinez’s defense also dealt with a turnover-prone offense. Opponents scored 71 points off 17 turnovers last season at this point, compared to seven points off seven turnovers this year.

Georgia now ranks 14th nationally in total defense at 290.14 yards per game and 20th in scoring defense at 17.43 points per game. The Bulldogs ranked 70th and 84th in those categories after a 4-3 start last season.

“More guys are just getting more confident in the talent and how to play to the defense,” defensive end Abry Jones said. “We’re getting real comfortable ourselves with the defense now. I feel like I don’t have to think that much. I feel like I can just line up and just play. If I see certain things, I know how to react to it. I don’t have to second-guess myself and think of other things I might have to do. I know what to do right there and then.”

The turnaround the past two weeks after a 1-4 start has been dramatic, but the Bulldogs haven’t exactly gone up against the most potent offenses the SEC has to offer.

Tennessee and Vanderbilt rank 11th and 12th in the SEC in both scoring and total offense – numbers that Georgia helped create by holding Tennessee to two touchdowns in a 41-14 win and shutting out Vanderbilt 43-0.

“I don’t think the opponent really matters,” Boykin said. “We had to look ourselves in the mirror and realize we weren’t as good as we thought we were and just take it upon ourselves to make a change.”

Georgia’s defensive players were spurred on by getting an earful the past two weeks about their play this season from former Bulldogs Boss Bailey and Thomas Davis.

“Nobody wants to be labeled as not a tough defense,” Boykin said. “Hearing that is not fun at all.”

The Bulldogs’ defense was gashed for big plays during its 1-4 start, during which Commings said the defense might have been “nonchalant.” Vanderbilt had just two plays of 25 or more yards Saturday.

“After we watched film and we see a lot of busts, I think that’s when they decided to simplify a little bit,” Commings said.

“There’s definitely fewer mental errors that have hurt us,” coach Mark Richt said. “I think we’re running to the ball better, I think we’re tackling better and I think we’re finding the guys who can keep from making those mental mistakes and can physically get the job done.”

Kentucky is second in the SEC in scoring offense, averaging 35.3 points per game.

“I think if we can do what we’ve been doing the past couple of weeks against Kentucky, I think we’ll show people that we are a real Georgia defense,” Commings said. “I think we’ll earn respect if we can shut Kentucky down.”

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