ATHENS — Mark Richt wasn’t asking for any miracles from Todd Grantham. When Richt hired Grantham to be Georgia’s defensive coordinator nine months ago, he was only asking for Grantham’s defense to give the Bulldogs a chance, to stem the bleeding.
Three games is certainly too early to render a verdict on Grantham and his 3-4 scheme. But given that two were against challenging offense, this much seems clear: The Bulldogs are slightly better on defense, but still have a ways to go — thanks to giving up way too many big plays.
“Really I think (the transition to the 3-4) is going pretty well right now,” outside linebacker Cornelius Washington said. “The scores don’t reflect how we’re playing.”
The offense has received a fair share of the blame for Georgia’s 1-2 start, but the defense has had its issues, too. Porous run defense was on display at South Carolina, while coverage breakdowns that led to long pass plays have been a problem in all three games.
Part of that could be blamed on inexperience in the secondary. The starters include one senior, two sophomores and a junior college transfer, and the backups are just as young.
The mistakes in the most recent game, against Arkansas, are well chronicled: Touchdown passes of 57 and 22 yards, where the receiver was wide open; And quick drives in the final minute of each half, yielding a field goal and game-winning touchdown.
But such mistakes weren’t quite new: The defense allowed a 40-yard completion to South Carolina, leading to a touchdown. And what would have been a shutout of Louisiana-Lafayette was spoiled by a 60-yard touchdown pass, when the receiver got wide open down the sideline.
“I think right now we’re in a learning curve, from a standpoint where that’s what can happen,” Grantham said. “You can say ‘Hey take out these plays,’ but you can’t, these plays are a part of it.”
As a result, Grantham said the emphasis to the players has been to be consistent from play-to-play.
“When you give up explosive plays, you’re going to give up points,” he said. “So from a learning standpoint, that was discussed and talked about. And I think the big thing is consistency and performance.”
Two other things aren’t happening so far for Georgia: Forced turnovers, or sacks from the linemen. But in each case, Grantham believes results haven’t been far off.
In the two losses, Georgia only had one takeaway, a fumble recovery at South Carolina. The Bulldogs picked off three passes against Louisana-Lafayette.
It didn’t help that South Carolina didn’t throw much, while Arkansas has an accurate quarterback in Ryan Mallett. But the defense has had a few drops, too.
“There’s been a couple of those,” Grantham said. “There was actually one at the end of the half against Arkansas. And those are big plays, because you have a chance to get off the field, those things. So we’re stressing that to them.”
Meanwhile, the front three has not recorded a sack yet, or even many tackles-for-loss. It’s not vital for the line to record sacks in the 3-4, but it would help. Grantham said he has seen signs those will happen eventually, and Washington added that from his vantage point, the line is getting some push.
“We’ve actually gotten a decent amount of pressure,” Washington said. “(Justin) Houston’s got three sacks on the season, I have two myself, (Akeem) Dent has one, (Akeem) Hebron has one. In three games, that’s a lot. As far as pressure goes, we’ve been doing pretty well.”
Still, Washington said the emphasis for the front seven is on stopping the run. Once it does that, he feels everything else will be opened up for the defense.
“It’s always the little things, but little things can turn to big things once you get down the road,” Washington said. “Once we correct those small things, coverage breakdowns, we’ll be good.”