There were plenty of reasons for Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to throw an office trash can against a wall or hurl a few choice words around when getting ready for another game week last season.
Injuries and suspensions to starters meant Grantham was earning his hefty paycheck by coming up with new starting lineups week after week.
“The thing I look at is the season’s not going to stop, the team we’re playing is not going to
feel sorry for us,” Grantham said. “It’s how you make the best of the situation.”
Georgia’s top-five defense used 13 different starting lineups last season, never sending out the same starters in back-to-back games
Grantham is having to move around the deck chairs again with starting cornerback Sanders Commings and projected starting outside linebacker Chase Vasser suspended the first two games and All-American safety Bacarri Rambo and playmaking inside linebacker Alec Ogletree expected to be suspended to start the season, which begins today against Buffalo.
“We’ve got a couple of guys missing, but at the same time we’re one team,” cornerback Branden Smith said when asked about defensive backs missing.
“Whoever’s out, the next guy’s got to step up.”
Georgia players can find comfort knowing that they rolled with the punches last season.
They point to the assortment of different lineups Georgia started on defense to think they can get through the loss of key players this time, too. The only games last year there were identical starting lineups were Games 9 and 11 against New Mexico State and Kentucky.
“We can still be as dominant as we want to be,” inside linebacker Christian Robinson said. “I’m excited to see how those different changes play out, but we can get it done.”
Georgia last year lost Ogletree in the opener against Boise State to a broken foot and he missed the next six games.
The next game Robinson, the other starter at inside linebacker, also went out with a foot injury and missed the next two games.
Grantham moved safety Shawn Williams to inside linebacker to start one game and then he was back in the secondary the
“Everybody thought for the Ole Miss game we’d play the same way, but we played Mike Gilliard and Amarlo Herrera at linebacker,” Grantham said.
Against Georgia Tech’s triple-option, Grantham played inside linebacker Mike Gilliard at
“That’s one thing coach Grantham is great at,” Gilliard said. “If a guy is injured or out, he always has another guy who can play that position.”
There is rhyme and reason to Grantham’s weekly moves.
“He does a great job of keeping me abreast of what he’s doing and why,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “We have good dialogue all the time, really.”
It helped that Grantham
came from the NFL, which has a 53-man roster limit.
The former Cleveland Browns defensive coordinator had to manage an even shallower pool. He said he may have only had 21 active defensive players on a 45-man active roster when you take into account 21 offensive players and 3 specialty players.
“So who’s playing where?” Grantham said.
“His mind just immediately goes to how can we line up our best, our best 11?,” Richt said. “It’s the best 11 in any given situation or the best 11 in any certain personnel grouping.”
Along the way in Grantham’s coaching career, he learned the value of using players in multiple roles.
At Virginia Tech, where he coached from 1990-95, he said big athletes were recruited. The athletic ones ended up at linebacker and the others added weight and rushed as down linemen.
At Michigan State under Nick Saban, Grantham’s next stop, coaches put Julian Peterson at outside linebacker. But Peterson had a hard time picking things up so they installed a package that Saban used when he was with the Cleveland Browns that was similar to what the 49ers used with Charles Haley.
“It basically allowed us to make Julian a rush guy always but yet play him in the game,”
Grantham said of a player who started three games at defensive end as a junior. Peterson rang up 11 tackles, including seven tackles for loss and four sacks against top-ranked Ohio State.
Grantham also worked with Romeo Crennel in Cleveland, who as defensive coordinator in New England had receiver Troy Brown play nickel corner in 2004 and finished second on the team with three interceptions.
Georgia is making a similar move.
Receiver Malcolm Mitchell was moved to cornerback before spring practice to shore up a secondary that will be missing Commings to a two-game suspension for a domestic violence arrest and also saw two backups kicked off the team this winter. Mitchell, however, sprained an ankle in practice Thursday and is out for Buffalo.
Grantham tries to target players in recruiting that can play
“You’re always going to have injuries so you always have to prepare for that in training camp and in recruiting,” he said. “In that sense, I don’t think you ever want to pigeonhole yourself into a guy can only do one thing, is one type of player. You always have
to look at the players you have available to you and you have to look at the team you’re playing and who are the players they have that can beat you and what do they do that can beat you and then it’s what can we do to take it away?. … If it means moving guys around, then you do it.”
Grantham talks to the other defensive position coaches about what he has in mind.
“I’ll go to them and say, ‘What do we think?’” Grantham said. “Or I may say, ‘Here are our choices. Which do we think is the best choice and the reasons why?’ I’m always going to ask them their input on things because I think it’s good to brainstorm things like that and get their feel for a guy, too. It’s going to be a combination of all of us. Ultimately, I’ll make the final decision, but at the same time, I’d like to get their input on what we’re going to do or maybe the reason I want to do it this way.”
Said inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti: “If we all have one vote, he has two and coach Richt has three. That’s just the way of the world. As a defensive staff, we all work together that way and it’s not about he’s my guy, he’s your guy. They’re all our guys and we just want them to play.”
Georgia’s defense is built to be ready to have answers just in case something unexpected pop ups.
“We’re kind of set up that way now,” secondary coach Scott Lakatos said. “There’s a lot of guys who know more than one thing. We’re able to move guys in and out of different position with what we need by gameplan or by series.”
Before the Georgia Tech game last year, Grantham came up with the plan to move Gilliard outside.
“He’s a good player with his hands,” Grantham said. “He’s a good run defender. It allowed us to play him on the quarterback or the pitch relative to how we were playing him. It helped us because he ended up getting a pick in that game. He tried to run it back, but he ended up having his knee hit the ground.”
Gilliard didn’t credit that interception in the 31-17 win on playing a different position.
“No, it was just me being me,” he said.
It helps that Grantham has talent on hand.
“He’s one of those coordinators that knows how to put the pieces (together) and make things work,” nose guard John Jenkins said. “He knows how to mold us together.”