There were teams that accumulated more rushing yards last season against Georgia than South Carolina, but the September game in Columbia still sticks out in the mind of Bulldogs linebacker Christian Robinson.
Marcus Lattimore’s big day – 37 carries for 182 yards and two touchdowns in a 17-6 Bulldogs’ loss – was the first sign that stopping the run would be an issue for Georgia in 2010.
“For me, I think that was the worst,” Robinson said. “I take that on myself. I didn’t play well. I just know from my experience I wish I would have played better.”
Georgia ranked 56th in the nation in run defense in Todd Grantham’s first season as defensive coordinator. The 147.2-yard average per game was the most the Bulldogs have allowed in a season since 1996, the last time Georgia finished with a losing record.
The Bulldogs’ defense this fall – particularly its front seven – should look much different than it did last year.
Big-hitting Alec Ogletree has moved up to inside linebacker. Southern California transfer Jarvis Jones is expected to make an impact as a starting outside linebacker.
Georgia should have more size in the middle with junior college transfer John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, who could command double teams at 340-plus pounds each.
Robinson, outside linebacker Cornelius Washington and defensive lineman DeAngelo Tyson return, but even they aren’t in the same spots as last year.
Robinson has replaced Akeem Dent as the “Mike” inside linebacker. Washington is at Justin Houston’s old weakside linebacker spot. Tyson has moved from nose to his more natural position of end.
“We’ve got a good number of people that came back that know the defense,” Tyson said. “Since everybody knows more about the defense and how to play it and what assignments they have and what checks they have, it’s better for us then it was last year because it was just a learning system. I think everybody’s got a good grasp and everybody will be able to play full speed.”
There were encouraging signs if you put much stock in the numbers in Saturday’s second spring scrimmage. The defense allowed 35 rushing yards on a day it gave up 417 through the air.
“We’re coming off the ball,” Jones said. “We’re coming off the ball a whole lot faster. Everybody knows their material, so that allows them to play a whole lot faster.”
New inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, who spent the past 11 seasons with the Washington Redskins, emphasized to his players the importance of run fits soon after arriving, Robinson said.
“I think the guys we have know where they’re supposed to run and which gap is theirs,” Robinson said. “I think we’re being more attacking right now. I think last year we were kind of hesitant. I don’t think that’s too much to say, but we really kind of sat back and wanted to play it safe. Now we know what we’re supposed to do and you can attack and be a little bit more loose.”
Asked about what it would take to improve as a run defense, Grantham cracked: “Tackle the runner.”
He added: “It’s a combination of everything, meaning some of it can be run fits, some of it can be where you play your guys or who’s playing those positions. Some of it can be maybe we need to play it this way instead of another way. I think it’s a cumulative effect of everything.”
Coach Mark Richt said simply being in the second year in the defense will help.
“We’re light years ahead of where we were a year ago in just understanding,” Richt said. “The kids understand it, the coaches understand it, coaches are understanding their personnel a little bit better. I think a year ago we were spending a lot of time learning what to do. I think we’re spending a lot more time on how to do it better.”
Georgia’s statistics from 2010 might be a bit skewed considering the large numbers put up by ground-oriented Georgia Tech (411 yards on 77 carries) and Auburn and Heisman Trophy-winning quarterback Cam Newton (315 on 57). But Grantham has said the team did not play consistently enough or physical enough for his liking.
Cornerback Brandon Boykin, who finished sixth on the team last season with 44 tackles, said a year of experience in the 3-4 and the addition of recruits targeted to fit the system will help the run defense this year.
“It has no choice but to get better,” Boykin said. “I’m confident that it will.”