G-Day goes to the defense

semerson@macon.comApril 6, 2013 

ATHENS -- It was the body language that told the story more than a sheet of statistics.

In the locker room following Georgia’s spring football game, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham could be seen smiling and laughing with defensive assistants Kirk Olivadotti and Scott Lakatos. They had a good day and knew it.

A few feet away offensive coordinator Mike Bobo sat with a scowl, and once asked his feelings, he showed why.

“There’s no doubt about it, we are nowhere near where we need to be offensively,” he said.

Considering all that, it’s fair to say the Bulldogs had a good day.

Georgia’s offense is expected to carry it next season, sporting a four-year starter at quarterback and almost every starter returning. The defense is young and inexperienced.

So the fact that the consensus was the defense had the better performance in Saturday’s spring game was encouraging.

“Hey, at the end of the day, Georgia won. That’s all that matters, right?” quarterback Aaron Murray said.

It’s always hazardous to draw firm conclusions from a spring game, which in many ways is just a glorified scrimmage, with plays held back, star players given light days and bench players thrust in the spotlight. For instance, it’s very unlikely that Kyle Karempelis, the leading rusher with 89 yards on 13 carries, will repeat that performance this season.

But Saturday’s G-Day game followed a trend in practices and two previous scrimmages in which the young defense held its own against an offense that set program records last season.

“I believe it says a lot, because you’ve seen last year our offense is real dynamic,” said Josh Harvey-Clemons, one of the defensive players stepping into a much bigger role this season. “Matching up with them, and they’re going to be one of the top offenses in the league ... so the better we can compete with them the better we’re going to be.”

Head coach Mark Richt split his team so that the first-team offense matched up against the first-team defense, and the second-teamers matched up, too. Bobo coached the Red team (featuring the first-team offense) and Grantham the Black team (featuring the first-team defense).

And at the end of the day, it was the Black sideline doing the most celebrating, having come back for a 23-17 lead.

Grantham might have been happy, but he also claimed not to be surprised.

“I think we’re about where we need to be,” Grantham said. “We did some good things. There’s always things you can improve on. The big thing with these guys is I see them improving each practice, each time we take the field there’s things we get better in than the last one. Now in saying that, that’s because we’re so young, but they’re fun to coach, they really do listen, they try to give attention to detail. They’re not always perfect, but they kept playing. Like that first half, we gave up a touchdown (on the first drive) but really after that, until the two-minute drive, they did pretty good.”

At first, it seemed the Red team would roll, as it scored quickly on the opening drive. But the Black team then forced five straight punts, including a number of three-and-outs.

Murray led the Red team for a score at the end of the first half, giving it a 17-7 lead. But second-team quarterback Hutson Mason rallied his team in the second half.

Bobo was very blunt afterwards.

“We’ve got a long way to go if we think we’ve arrived as an offense, and think we’re just gonna be able to walk on the field,” Bobo said. “We’ve got a lot of work left to do.”

Murray didn’t think it was that bad. And he did have a good day: 200 passing yards, two touchdowns, competing 12-of-18 passes. His backup on the Red team, Christian LeMay, did not have a good day: 0-for-6, one interception.

“It’s not like we’re gonna run up and down on our defense,” Murray said, defending his unit’s performance by saying the unit was trying a lot of players and hadn’t game-planned to beat its own defense. “It’s completely different when you’re game-planning for a team, and you know exactly what they’re doing on first down, exactly what they’re doing on second down, and third down, and you’re able to play off that. It’s just very different.”

In other words, Bobo is playing bad cop and Murray good cop.

“That’s his job,” Murray said, laughing. “I’ve gotta make sure everyone’s smiling at the end of the day.”

Everyone on defense seemed to be smiling.

There were nine “sacks,” a bit of a skewed number because when a quarterback was touched the play was ruled over. Still, that’s an indication of good pass pressure.

The seven new starters on defense performed well, from freshman safety Tray Matthews to nose tackle Mike Thornton to freshman linebacker Reggie Carter (an interception and seven tackles).

The defense forced three turnovers, including a tipped interception to Connor Norman, which iced the game for the Black team.

And out of 25 possessions, there were 15 punts, and along with the three turnovers, that meant the defense got off the field 72 percent of the time. Considering that only four starters returned on defense, Grantham and his players will take that.

“I’m just excited about Tray and all the young guys we got, because we’re gonna have a lot of young guys making plays this year,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “Sophomores, freshmen, all of that.”

“I see us getting better with every practice. I mean I really see us improving as a defense the more that we take the field,” Grantham said.

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