To worry, or not to worry, about Georgia's defense?

semerson@macon.comJune 12, 2014 

Defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt during Georgia's G-Day game at Sanford Stadium on April 12.

JOHN KELLEY — John Kelley / UGA Sports Communi

I was a little surprised, perhaps just a little hurt, that no one asked for my World Cup pick. Shocked, actually. So before getting into your actual Georgia-related questions, I'll give you my darkhorse pick to win it all:

Ecuador.

Yes, Ecuador.

Why? Well, the team does have a quality midfield, but my decision is not based on actual, you know, soccer. I'm not a huge futbol guy. (In fact I had to double-check just now to make sure Ecuador was actually in the World Cup.)

But my Ecuador pick is based on the following sound reasoning: I lived there as a kid. For three years, I walked the mean streets of Quito, and it imbued me with a love of ... well, the Washington Redskins, because my Dad made sure the Super Bowl tapes were mailed to us. But I also loved Ecuador, and therefore they are my pick.

Of course I also lived in Spain for two years, and that squad is actually the defending Cup champion. And I'm also technically, you know, American, and our squad is in the Cup too. And my wife's family is German, and they're pretty good. None of that matters, however, as Ecuador has a cool flag and very big volcanoes. Vamos Ecuador!

Now, for those still reading, the mailbag:

Given the recent dismissals and departures on the defensive side of the ball, all I hear is doom and gloom for Georgia's defense. Isn't it fair to say that the players we lose were, in all actuality, only about 20 percent of the production from last years defense? Sure, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were somewhat proven, but I found myself yelling at the TV screen more than I did applauding the players. My question is this, with addition of Shattle Fenteng, Malkom Parish and others, can I comfortably say we're going to be better off with guys that learn Jeremy Pruitt’s system?
- Garrison Spearman


That’s what Pruitt thinks. But is he right? On the one hand, as I wrote last week there is still plenty of experience coming back: Damian Swann started every game at cornerback last year, and Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore started the majority of games (seven each) at safety. On the other hand, the three players who left also started a lot of games, and arguably are collectively more talented than the three returning starters.

But I'd be careful. You sound a lot like the fans this time last year saying that despite only four starters returning thought the defense would be just as good, if not better, than 2012. The offseason creates false optimism, as we saw last year. The front seven should be pretty good, especially the linebackers. But if the secondary ranks in the top half of the SEC in third-down defense then Pruitt should be commended.

Do you think that Harvey-Clemons, Shaq Wiggins, and Matthews were all Grantham boys and that at some point they were probably going to leave UGA no matter what to continue playing for the coach that recruited them?

Second question, I'm curious what Swann has to say about all this, any word from him or has he kept quiet? I am actually fairly optimistic regarding our secondary. I think Swann is going to get back to his true form and be an NFL prospect player. Futhermore, I think Moore showed a lot promise when he did play and I think Mauger has talent. I also see the departure of JHC, Wiggins and Matthews as a good thing, similar to the departure of Crowell - get rid of the bad apples. Agree/disagree?
- Brad Denney, Birmingham


Well, we don't know where Matthews is going yet, and truth be told I think Grantham found out about Matthews' dismissal the same way the rest of us did. But to answer your question, I think each could have continued and finished their careers at Georgia, but under a coordinator who shared Grantham's philosophies. Other than both running a 3-4, Pruitt and Grantham are pretty different. (I'll touch a bit more on that in the next question.)
I disagree on Wiggins’ departure being a good thing. Don’t mistake having personality for being a bad apple. You can’t just have drones out there. From the people I’ve spoken to, Wiggins was regarded as a good player who just had a personality conflict with the new defensive staff. Matthews, on the other hand, clearly ruffled some feathers among coaches and players. Harvey-Clemons is a kid who just has some growing up to do, and very well may do it further away from home.

Swann hasn’t weighed in on all this, mainly because it’s the summer and players aren’t typically available for interviews. He’s also steered away from it on Twitter, which is probably wise. Swann and Moore are regarded as good guys by team insiders, who just perhaps need to speak up a bit more. That may be why Pruitt was so fiery and vocal this spring; he sensed a void in vocal leadership in the secondary, so he was trying to fill it. We’ll see if the seniors step into that void now. But when it comes to the field this is obviously a make-or-break year for both of them, especially Swann. He still has a chance to play his way into a second- or third-round type NFL prospect.

Many people have been saying the recent dismissals/transfers from the defense were not only needed but expected. They pointed out that the cavalier attitudes of many high-profile recruits on the defense created a negative environment. They have then argued that Coach Pruitt's "cleaning house" actions is just what the defense needed. But such arguments makes one wonder why was such a negative environment allowed to occur in the first place? Don't get me wrong, I'm not looking to cast blame or find a scapegoat, I'm just trying to get an unbiased opinion on how this environment in the defense occurred.
-Ray, Lawton, Oklahoma


There were a lot of little reasons. Garrison Smith told me that leadership in the secondary could have been better last year, and too many young players felt a sense of entitlement and were immediately thrust into the starting lineup - out of necessity, by the way. Therefore you could actually trace this back to the departures of Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders, two guys who likely would have been starting last year after having sat a year or two.

Coaching-wise, Grantham’s NFL background perhaps made him a bit more tolerant of things. That was fine when you had fiery leadership on defense his first three years, such as Christian Robinson, Jarvis Jones and Shawn Williams. But that was lacking last year.

But there's another reason for it, which people forget: Losing. When you lose games, it can lead to finger-pointing and locker-room issues. If Harvey-Clemons knocks down that pass at Auburn, maybe everyone leaves the season feeling differently. If Todd Gurley stays healthy, maybe Georgia's offense is good enough to overcome the (expected) defensive issues, and the Bulldogs beat Missouri, Vanderbilt, and so on. When you win, there's little room for discontent in the locker room. When you lose, the issues that I've alluded to come up a lot more.

I enjoyed your recent story on Mike Bobo and his ascension as the offensive coordinator. As a reformed coach Bobo heckler, I think the change has been when Bobo went from just (essentially) calling plays in Richt's offense (Tech game '06 until end of 2010) to when Bobo actually put in his own offense (2011-present). What do you think?
- Bryan Grantham


There’s definitely that dividing line between the 2010 and 2011 seasons, when the hurry-up was implemented, the playbook began to gradually expand, and the offense took off. Some people will tell you that Bobo evolved, and that the criticisms of his playcalling prior to 2011 were accurate. But I remember a lot of the criticism continuing into 2012, when they finally quieted, at least among the rational fans. Some people just became so attached to their opinion that they refused to acknowledge reality until it was too obvious.

My sense is that it’s a mixture of a lot of factors: Bobo did mature a bit as a playcaller, as anyone would. He had always been well-regarded as a quarterbacks coach, which is a big part of the reason Richt stood by him and had faith in him. The offense did evolve a bit, as Bobo and Richt seemed to realize that the offense that worked so well in the early 2000s had to adapt a bit. And having Aaron Murray as a junior and senior, and Todd Gurley, Keith Marshall and very good receivers also helped.

The offseason saw J.J. Green move from the offense to the defensive secondary and Brendan Langley move to receiver. Which player to do you see likely making the biggest and most immediate impact at his new position?
- John Wilson


Green, and it’s not even close. He’s the favorite to start at the star (nickel-back) spot, while Langley is looking up at a lot of talented players on the depth chart. Green also has a head start, having played defense in the spring, while Langley has to learn a new offense. He has a lot of catching up to do, and I wouldn’t be shocked if he redshirted this season.

It could be a different story long-term. That depends mostly on whether Langley can prove to be a serviceable option at receiver. The playing time will definitely be available after this season.

With all the talk about an eight- or nine-game schedule being the more appropriate long term solution, it seems to me the best solution lies in NCAA reform. If the rule is changed that mandates divisions in order to have a championship game, all traditional rivalries can be maintained through each team having three permanent games, have five rotating opponents and the top two teams can meet in the championship game. Too simple?
- Jeremy from Chattanooga


You’ve hit on a solution, but one that has little traction in the SEC right now. Some in the ACC have proposed it, and the Big 12 would like a change too, as it’s under the mandated number to have divisions and thus a championship game. But when it was brought up in Destin (by the media) it was shrugged off by SEC officials. They like the division concept. As for the NCAA, it has bigger fish to fry right now.

But ultimately, yeah, the SEC is protecting certain rivalries (Auburn-Georgia, Alabama-Tennessee), while making other attractive matchups happen only once every six years (Georgia-Texas A&M, Georgia-LSU), all while some “blah” intra-division games (Georgia-Kentucky) are an annual affair.

Basketball did away with divisions, and it’s working out fine. But football is a long way from doing that.

I have heard Coach Richt talk about offseason evaluation many times. I was wondering about this and how it's done. Is it an actual process done with others, i.e. a team activity?
- James Lewis


The coaches aren't allowed to oversee players in football-related activities during the summer, although NCAA rules changed this year to allow coaches to have eight hours a week with players for other activities: Weight-lifting and film study especially. The players do organize and conduct their own offseason workouts, which in the past have mostly been 7-on-7 drills, but this year Hutson Mason said they're trying more 11-on-11 stuff, or at least all 11 on offense working together. But again, that stuff isn't supposed to be viewed by coaches, and isn't supposed to be filmed. Of course nothing stops the players from stopping by to tell the coaches how those workouts are going.

So when Richt and coaches talk about offseason evaluation, they mean what they've heard from players, as well as what they've seen in terms of attendance. If a freshman is having to be dragged out of his room for weight-lifting sessions, that's a bad sign. But if he's showing up early and working hard, that's a good sign. (And if this strikes you as evidence that college athletes are different than your regular student, then yeah, you're right.)

I understand when the Bulldogs fly this fall, they will do so from Atlanta, which adds approximately 90 minutes highway travel time each way, for about a total of three more hours added to each plane trip. Longer travel times means more fatigue and less recovery time. If they indeed are flying out of Atlanta, that just does not appear to be a good idea. What do you think?
- Larry, Class of 1980


I haven’t spoken to Richt about it, but I’m sure he’d prefer to fly out of Athens. It’s out of his hands though, as Delta has stopped the charter service from there. But before anyone makes too big a deal out of it, a couple points:

- Georgia only started flying out of Athens a few years ago. So they’re now just going back to what they had to do for years.

- This affects the visitors as well: Tennessee, for instance, will have to fly into Atlanta and then bus to Athens.

- Finally, plenty of SEC teams also have to drive to bigger airports. Auburn, for one, often busses to Columbus or sometimes even Atlanta.

I have a question in regards to the UGA athletic program and the way that UGA recruits or admits student athletes. As a long time Bulldog fan I have seen many athletes/prospects that get into other schools that UGA recruited and have heard that they didn’t qualify for UGA. I was wondering if there is a difference in the admission guidelines/requirements at UGA versus other SEC teams?
- Cleveland Williams, III, Stone Mountain


This is not something that anyone typically talks openly about, but behind the scenes coaches will tell you that yes, there are certain athletes they have not been able to recruit or continue to recruit, based on the assumption they would not be able to get into school. Obviously I’m not breaking any news here when I say that some athletes get leeway from the admissions department. But it depends on how much leeway, and it’s generally assumed by coaches that you only have so many “special admits” per year.

None of this is very different from any other school, by the way.

I have had a coach tell me that recruiting at Georgia can be more difficult because of the admissions process. UGA isn’t on par with Vanderbilt, per se’, but it may be in that next tier of SEC schools in terms of athlete’s admissions processes.

A final thought on this: I’ve heard less on this issue while covering UGA than when I covered South Carolina, when Steve Spurrier was very vocal after several of his recruits were denied admission to the school. It could be that UGA does a better job of keeping such battles in-house. It could also be that UGA’s staff has been in place so long (the Spurrier rant was in his third year there) that it has a feel for who it can and cannot recruit.

This question is purely hypothetical (and perhaps not worth answering): Considering the recent spate of pot legalization, although highly unlikely (we are in the South after all), how would UGA respond if some nearby state, home to a lot of recruits or Georgia itself, legalize pot? It would probably make sense to tweak it, but what is your sense that they would?
- Jeremiah


I don’t detect any cracks in support for UGA’s drug policy, at least among the people that matter: From the president to the athletics director to the head football coach, this is an issue there is general agreement. So yes, it would take outside forces to change it, such as it becoming a recruiting liability. As you said, it’s pretty unlikely a nearby state will legalize marijuana anytime soon, but then again oftentimes a cultural movement goes a lot quicker than anticipated.

For basketball: What effect will the opening of Stegeman to general admission have on the games? Granted I live in North Carolina and the last time I went was to see a rodeo when my dad was in grad school, but whenever I see the games on TV it looks desolate. If no one's at the game, what worth is it to have general assignment seating?
- Jeremiah, again


Actually, general admission seating makes it look so much better, and makes the atmosphere better. The two NIT crowds were technically the two lowest-attended of the year, but because everyone got to sit where they wanted it made it seem like everyone was on top of the court.

They haven’t actually decided to make it general admission for every game. They haven’t decided on anything yet, from what I was told most recently. What Greg McGarity says is they’re looking hardest at this option: If a season ticket holder hasn’t arrived within a certain amount of time – say, the first or second media timeout – then their seat becomes available.

Season-ticket holders not showing up to games has been a real problem lately, and because they get counted in each game’s attendance it skews the listed attendance upward. It also means that some very good and close seats are unused. McGarity and his staff are looking at ways to change that, and to capture the excitement the NIT crowds produced, while preserving the benefits of buying a season ticket.

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