Don’t think just because the cast that Todd Grantham has to work with this season has gone through major changes that the expectation is lowered.
It hasn’t for the Georgia defensive coordinator or his players.
“We’re a young defense. We already have been counted out by most people, but one thing about our defense is we’re vicious and we’re aggressive and we’re coming,” cornerback Sheldon Dawson said. “Our mentality is where it needs to be to have a great, successful year.”
Developing mental and physical toughness is what Grantham said he instilled in the defense after his first season in 2010. The Bulldogs have reached the Southeastern Conference championship game each of the past two seasons.
“As coaches, we’re going to challenge ourselves that we’ve got a certain standard to uphold,” Grantham said in late spring. “We won 22 games in two years, won the SEC East the last two years, we’re 14-2 in the SEC. That standard is set. There’s a lot of different ways to win ball games. Turnovers is a way. Playing good in the red zone is a way. Each game is different.”
Georgia’s nucleus on defense was mostly the same in the 2011 and 2012 seasons, but in the major statistical categories the Bulldogs slipped as a defense in most measures except for scoring defense.
Maybe that’s why junior cornerback Damian Swann is hardly seeing doom and gloom despite the loss of seven players who were taken in the NFL draft.
“If you look at what happened last year, we had some of the top guys in college football, but we didn’t have the best numbers,” Swann said. “The way I look at it, I don’t think we can get no worse than what we had last year. I think we can only get better.”
Georgia declined in most statistical categories from 2011 to 2012 including rushing defense, pass efficiency defense, total defense, sacks and tackles for loss, but the most important stat, points allowed (19.64), was the lowest in Grantham’s three seasons.
Grantham views those trend lines against the backdrop of a defense hit with multiple suspensions to start the season when players were forced to shift positions.
When suspended players Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo returned, they were plugged in while other players shifted back to other positions.
“There were some timing issues with that, so that developed some inconsistencies in the middle (of the season),” Grantham said. “From the Florida game on, we probably played as good as anybody if you look at those stats.”
Grantham points to Georgia giving up 3.3 yards per carry in the SEC, but that was down from 2.5 yards the previous year. The Bulldogs yielded 127.4 rushing yards per game in league play compared to 72.0 in 2011.
“If we give up 3.3 yards per carry, you’re going to be pretty good,” Grantham said.
Georgia should be deeper up front and could be eventually in the secondary as well.
“I think this year it’s going to be a group effort,” defensive end Garrison Smith said. “It’s not going to be just one person standing out, it’s going to be a team effort and that’s going to be with the whole defense.”
One of the people standing out is expected to be redshirt freshman defensive end/nose guard John Taylor.
“We have the ability to be a really great defense,” Taylor said. “We’ve got power, we’ve got speed, we’ve got athletes. Everybody’s on the page, everybody is learning what to do. I think we’re going to have a really good defense this year.”
Even dealing with plenty of injuries to the secondary this preseason hasn’t left Grantham reevaluating what he has to work with heading into a season that starts with Clemson and South Carolina.
“The new guys we’ve kind of thrown things at them to see what they can learn, how they handle things,” Grantham said last week. “I think now it’s just trying to get the best combination of 11 guys that we have available for each game to play.”
Swann paints a picture of players stepping into prominent roles this season, of being hungry to prove themselves on the college level and not thinking of what’s ahead for them in their careers.
“We’ve got young guys that are ready to play, that’s not really focusing on the next level, that has two or three more years left to play before they can even think about whatever else is going on, and I think that’s going to be big throughout the whole defense,” Swann said. “That’s something I’m really looking forward to. I’m looking forward to showing the world what this defense has to offer.”