ATHENS -- It started getting around this week that Todd Grantham, Georgias somewhat volatile defensive coordinator, had lit into his players. As one player described it, Grantham started cursing out the defensive backs, then moved to the linebackers and finally the entire defense.
When? Grantham said, when asked about it.
After Saturdays game, he was told.
Then Grantham smiled slightly.
Oh yeah, he said.
Grantham and his players could make light of it, because Georgia still won, as it has this season despite some uneven performances. But how much longer can the defense turn it on in the second half before it costs the fifth-ranked Bulldogs a game?
The defense was supposed to be the backbone of this team. Nine starters were returning, including two first-team All-Americans, from a unit that ranked fifth in the nation in 2011 in total defense.
Suspensions took away four starters for the first two games. When two returned Saturday against Florida Atlantic, star linebacker Jarvis Jones sat out with a groin injury.
Youre not missing average players. Youre missing really good players, cornerback Malcolm Mitchell said.
Mitchell doesnt think much can be read into the defensive struggles based on the absence of safety Bacarri Rambo and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree. The two are expected to serve the final games of four-game suspensions Saturday against Vanderbilt, then return next week to face Tennessee.
I dont think any player can just be taken off the defense and not missed, Mitchell said. Because youve still got an All-American (Rambo) missing and a potential All-American (Ogletree) missing, too. So with them being gone, we just have to work hard in some areas. Bringing them two back is a total game-changer, because theyre such good football players.
Still, there is a sense among players that the unit, currently ranked 42nd in the nation in total defense, should be better. No matter how many starters are out, Georgia shouldnt be letting programs like Buffalo and Florida Atlantic reach 20 points. But that happened.
Were definitely a little frustrated right now with the way were playing, said defensive back Sanders Commings, who along with linebacker Chase Vasser came off suspension for the Florida Atlantic game. But all we can do is keep practicing hard and keep playing better, and eventually those numbers we put up last year, well get back to that.
Grantham may curse out his players in private, but publicly he adopts a more optimistic tone.
If you look at the games, we didnt play in the first half against Buffalo well, but we came back in the second. I think we played pretty good in the Missouri game all the way through. And this past weekend we played better in the second half again, Grantham said. So weve gotta work to get some consistency and get some guys to just be more consistent in what theyre doing. And if we do that, well play well for four quarters.
The difference between before and after halftime has been notable. Buffalo, Missouri and Florida Atlantic scored a combined 40 points in the first half and just 20 in the second half -- and Florida Atlantics lone points came on an interception return against the Georgia backup offense.
It seems like whenever we play SEC teams, so far the facts have proven that, we tend to play down a little bit, freshman linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. But as soon as we get to the second half, we turn into that lights-out Georgia defense. I feel like were still working out some of the kinks. Well definitely be ready by Saturday. Well have our stuff fine-tuned by then.
But do those first-half problems against weaker foes still indicate bigger problems?
Some players also agreed it was almost good to go through some early struggles -- as long as the team stayed unbeaten -- so those could spur some changes. Those problems could even remind players they werent automatically going to have a dominant defense this year.
I know how good we are, Jones said. I definitely do. At the same time, were building as many people as we can to build depth. Some of the numbers that yall see, I know they arent the greatest, or they aint what like what they were last year. But its still early. We havent done a lot on defense, as far as a lot of our packages and stuff like that. Weve still got a lot of plays to be put in.
As the young guys learn, its gonna make us that much better when our whole defense, when our whole group of starters are on the field at the same time. That hasnt been (yet), but when it is I think its gonna be something special.