ATHENS -- Branden Smith was a freshman two years ago when the Georgia defense hit its low point. The heat from the outside was at a peak. Change was on its way.
“It was pretty bad,” Smith said this week. “It wasn’t a good feeling. It just felt like we weren’t together as a team.”
Abry Jones was a freshman, too. The defensive end from Northside remembers seeing a lot of talent but not much to show for it.
“There were a lot of guys on defense that I looked up to and said, ‘These are great guys, and these are great athletes,’ ” Jones said this week. “And I look at it now and say we have the same talent.”
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But that talent is now performing at a much higher level.
Two years after the defensive coaching staff was overhauled, Georgia ranks fourth in the nation in total defense. There are many reasons the Bulldogs are on the verge of reaching the SEC championship game, but the defense is the main one.
In many quarters, the turnaround is being credited to Todd Grantham, the longtime NFL assistant who brought his 3-4 defensive scheme to Georgia in 2010.
Alabama head coach Nick Saban had Grantham on his staff at Michigan State in the late 1990s.
“I’ve always thought he was one of the best coaches I ever had on any staff,” Saban said. “He certainly has a lot of very positive experience in the NFL and some other places. I have a tremendous amount respect for him, and he’s done a fantastic job there. Because they were kind of hurting on defense when he went there, and they’ve really developed into a stellar group.”
By hurting, this is what Saban meant:
In 2008, Georgia ranked 59th nationally in scoring defense. It gave up 40-plus points three times, including losses to arch-rivals Florida and Georgia Tech.
A year later, Georgia was 64th in scoring defense and 38th in yardage allowed. There were more glaring defensive lapses: a 45-19 loss at Tennessee, 41-17 to Florida and the final straw being a 34-27 home loss to Kentucky.
Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez and two other assistants were let go. Grantham was brought in with two other assistants, and only defensive line coach Rodney Garner remained.
Players said this week that the change itself helped, because the previous defensive staff had been under such fire it was becoming a distraction. But Grantham also brought an intensity that was needed, according to safety Bacarri Rambo.
“That’s what we really had been missing on the defensive side of the ball,” said Rambo, who leads the SEC in interceptions this season. “I know sometimes we should not be coach-oriented to get us motivated. But sometimes it takes that, and he gets us so fired up and has us out there ready to play. ... We’re playing relentless; everybody’s having fun. We’re playing with a swagger and confidence that we didn’t play with the previous years.”
The turnaround didn’t happen overnight or even last year. The Bulldogs did improve to 23rd nationally in total defense and 36th in scoring defense, and the only team Georgia gave up 40 points to was Auburn, the eventual BCS champion.
And one trend did begin last year: turnover margin.
Georgia hadn’t been able to force many fumbles or interceptions in the final years of the Martinez era. Enter Grantham, who made it an emphasis. He quoted a stat, which he brought with him from his NFL days: A team has only a 20 percent chance of winning if it is minus-1 or worse in turnover margin, and it’s 80 percent or better if it’s plus-1 or better. And it’s about 90 percent if it’s plus-2 or more.
“I knew of the stats coming in, but I didn’t really look at the reasons why,” Grantahm said. “I just knew that it was critical that we got turnovers and that we were in the plus margin.”
So last year Georgia finished second in the SEC with a plus-10 turnover margin. This year it ranks second again, at plus-9.
“When you play the game the way it’s supposed to be played, luck tends to favor you,” defensive back Sanders Commings said. “On defense, all 11 guys run to the ball. In practice, we practice good habits, guys stripping the ball. That’s the way we play.”
Commings, a junior, was asked to reflect on how everything had changed the past two years.
“I never thought I’d have a new coordinator, a new DB coach,” he said. “When I came in, we were No. 1 in the country; we won 10 games that year. I’ve seen us have a losing season. And now we’re about to play in the SEC championship. I’ve seen a lot. And it’s been a crazy experience.”