Georgia banking on experience on defense

semerson@macon.comAugust 18, 2011 

ATHENS -- Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham was having the painful past recounted for him the other day. The questioner pointed out his unit’s struggles on third down last year, when Grantham interrupted.

“Well third-and-medium wasn’t a problem,” he said. “Third-and-long was a problem.”

And what was the problem?

“They got 1 more yard than we needed,” Grantham answered, deadpan.

He briefly curled his lips into a smile but then stopped. Apparently it wasn’t worth joking about.

Statistically, Georgia did improve in Grantham’s first year in charge of the defense, and so did the secondary. But thanks to those third-down problems, it often didn’t seem that way.

Georgia was fifth in scoring defense and fourth in total defense in the SEC. Its pass defense was also a respectable fifth. But it ranked last in the SEC in third-down defense and was 79th in the country.

This year, Georgia returns pretty much everybody from the same secondary and adds some highly rated recruits. But the question for Georgia is whether the same characters who were part of the problem last year will be part of the solution.

The talent is there. Cornerbacks Brandon Boykin and Branden Smith are NFL prospects, while safety Bacarri Rambo is the team’s leading returning tackler. Sanders Commings, who can play corner and safety, is reliable in coverage.

Some players are gone -- safety Jakar Hamilton, who started five games last year, is out for the season with an ankle injury, and promising sophomore Alec Ogletree was moved to inside linebacker. But freshmen Damian Swann, Corey Moore, Chris Sanders and Nick Marshall are all candidates to play right away.

But the common theme from secondary coach Scott Lakatos and his players is that the second year of the system will pay dividends.

“Experience always helps. In anything. Any line of work, experience helps,” Lakatos said. “Because there’s going to be things that pop up during the game that maybe you hadn’t had a chance to see before or hadn’t had a chance to practice or knew. Now because you’ve got experience guys don’t panic and they know how to react to it and they put themselves in position. So experience is incredibly valuable.”

Boykin said the Bulldogs “look like a totally different secondary.”

“And that’s just because we have the experience and know what we’re doing,” Boykin said. “We’re able to disguise (coverages) and call things like that. And we have so much more depth.”

But the Bulldogs aren’t depending simply on experience to fix it. Grantham and Lakatos have emphasized third-down drills, especially third-and-long.

The secondary failed in the final minute of the third game against Arkansas, but that was on long first-down plays. The carnage on key third downs began against Mississippi State (which was 7-for-13 on third downs) and Colorado (which was 7-for-15).

Georgia might have ended Auburn’s national title hopes if it had stopped the Tigers on third down. Instead Cam Newton and company converted 10-of-14 times.

Kentucky managed 353 passing yards, mostly because it was playing from behind, but Georgia could’ve put the game away with stout defense. Kentucky, by the way, was 9-for-15 on third downs.

Georgia also beat Georgia Tech, but it would’ve been a blowout had the Yellow Jackets not converted seven of their 12 attempts on third down.

“It came down to execution in crucial areas, which was third down and two minute (drills),” Lakatos said. “Those are two things that we worked hard on in the spring, and we’re working hard on currently, and guys have to understand that that’s the time when your technique is incredibly important; those are critical situations.”

Boykin acknowledged there was confusion last year in the first year of the system.

“There was early on. It takes time to learn that defense and coming in and having to play and learning at the same time was a test in itself,” he said.

Did being the first year of a 3-4 system with different terminology and calls,have an adverse affect?

“Sure, I think some of it has to do with that,” Lakatos said. “Number two is experience. They were younger last year. Now it’s the same calls, the same defenses, the same coverages, the second time through they know what they’re doing, and they get better knowing how to do it better now.”

At least that’s what Georgia is banking on.

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