ATHENS — Not everything has changed, but Georgia’s defense could be excused for feeling like it has.
Three-quarters of the coaching staff has been replaced. The new coaches overseeing Georgia’s defense include a longtime NFL assistant and a defensive backs coach who has never worked outside of the Northeast. With them comes a brand new defensive system, with new lingo, new alignments and position changes across the board. Gone, too, are the majority of the defense’s vocal leaders, including a trio of senior defensive tackles, three-fourths of the secondary and linebacker Rennie Curran, the team’s leading tackler for the past two seasons.
It’s a nearly clean slate, and yet the response from virtually all of Georgia’s defensive holdovers has been immensely positive. Despite all the transition, it has been smooth sailing in Athens — so far.
“We’ve learned a lot of the basics that go on, and in practice throughout the spring, it’s going to be very high tempo,” senior linebacker Darryl Gamble said of his team’s early work in the 3-4 scheme installed by new coordinator Todd Grantham.
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The process of turning the novice holdovers into experts on the 3-4 will be an ongoing one, Grantham said, but there are key steps that must be made before the coaching staff waves goodbye to the players at the end of spring practice, and he began working on those almost immediately upon arrival.
The first order of business was simply identifying the players who would best fit Grantham’s scheme. The new staff watched film on all of the holdovers from last season, analyzing their skill sets and deciding where they’d best fit in the 3-4.
“The biggest thing is Coach Grantham has a vision for what this defense is going to look like, what the body types are at each position,” head coach Mark Richt said. “So he and (the other coaches) have looked at the film, and Todd has been describing what he’s looking for in each spot, and (they) just fit what they see to the position that he envisions.”
That has meant numerous position changes, with former defensive ends converting to outside linebacker, former tackles moving to the edge and players who were used to a more simplified role at linebacker, like the veteran Gamble, taking on a bigger responsibility in the new system.
“It’s critical you define the role for each player, so when they leave in the summer, (they know), ‘Here’s what you can do to improve yourself, what you can work on,’ ” Grantham said. “That way when we come back, everybody’s got an understanding.”
The new positions are just the start, however. The real work comes in passing along the fundamentals of the scheme.
Grantham has packages for first and second down already in place, and the process of training players on those packages and personnel groups has already begun. Next comes inserting a package for third down and beginning to break down the opposing offenses — not just the basic formations, Grantham said, but rather looking at every team the Bulldogs will face in 2010.
“It’s important we work on all the different types of offense we’re going to see, that way come Week 7 when we see something a little different, we’re going to be ready for it,” Grantham said. “So it’s going to be a pretty busy spring.”
It already has been busy for Grantham, who said he spends the first half of each day working on recruiting, then spends three-fourths of a day working on film study, conditioning and meeting with players. Add it all up, Grantham joked, and it works out to more than a full day’s work.
Of course, Grantham isn’t complaining about the overtime. The work is crucial, and it goes beyond simply watching film with the players. He’s training a new staff, too, and that has been one of the most critical aspects of his job the past few weeks.
“I think the critical thing is making sure everybody’s on the same page, making sure the language we’re talking is all the same,” Grantham said. “The guys we’ve hired, I feel like they’re good teachers. And when you install something, I feel like you have to be very precise in how you install it, you have to be consistent, and you have to be all talking the same language so the players understand.”
It’s not that the previous regime didn’t teach, but the styles are noticeably different, cornerback Branden Smith said. There’s a close focus on fundamentals, not just in teaching it, but in making sure the players understand.
It’s that clarity of communication that has been a fixture of the early work coaches and players have done, linebacker Marcus Dowtin said.
“They’re player friendly,” Dowtin said. “(Linebackers) Coach (Warren) Belin speaks on honestly and us giving 100 percent effort, and as long as we’re doing that, there hasn’t been any situation where they haven’t been truthful with us. They’re good guys.”
It has been a learning experience across the board, but it’s one Georgia’s players have been enthusiastic to undertake.
Safety Bacarri Rambo said he meets with new secondary coach Scott Lakatos almost daily, working on his footwork by breaking down film of NFL players.
“Most of the people in the NFL run the same thing as Coach Lakatos is teaching us,” Rambo said. “It’s a whole different footwork thing from (former) Coach (Willie) Martinez.”
Lakatos told Rambo that, at the recent Senior Bowl, NFL scouts were busy teaching several draft hopefuls the same footwork Rambo is now learning. There may be other ways of getting the job done, but Lakatos was instructing his players on the way the pros do it.
That has been a common theme, particularly with Grantham now overseeing the defense. After spending the past 11 years in the NFL, most recently as defensive line coach for the NFC East champion Dallas Cowboys, Grantham has a set idea of how things should be done, and his new players are anxious to learn.
The process is pretty simple, Dowtin said. Grantham explains how to run a certain play or coverage. He then goes to the chalk board and draws up the Xs and Os to make sure his players understand. Then they move to the film, where Grantham shows his former Dallas players executing the play at full speed.
“He basically says, ‘Put yourself in those positions and see yourself making plays,’ ” Dowtin said. “And that’s what you do to learn it.”
There’s an enthusiasm that comes with that type of education, too, Dowtin said. There’s a sense among the players that they’ve been let in on a secret, that this new coaching staff has unlocked some hidden potential the rest of the world wasn’t sure existed. Now, they simply can’t wait to unleash on the opposition this fall.
In the film room, Dowtin sees his counterpart with the Dallas Cowboys run through the same plays his new defensive coordinator has taught him. Just as his new coach instructed, he envisions himself doing the same.
It will still be months before Dowtin can turn that vision into a reality, but that’s not important now. The vision is all the evidence he needs of what’s in store.
“I look at the guys at my position and the people around that position with the Cowboys, and I just see the energy and how people are flying to the ball. It’s exciting. It’s something new and it’s something that other teams won’t be used to. With the athletes we’ve got, I think it’s going to be a shock to everybody.”