ATHENS -- When Mark Richt fired his college roommate, Willie Martinez, two years ago, it sent a message. The Georgia Bulldogs needed a different kind of defensive coordinator.
They needed another Brian Van Gorder.
Van Gorder was the defensive coordinator at Western Illinois when Richt hired him in 2000. He quickly went from a no-name to a folk hero at Georgia, as his defenses helped Richt achieve early success.
But then Van Gorder left for the NFL, and his departure caused things to change in Athens.
Martinez took over, and things were just different. Like Van Gorder, Martinez was fiery and loud, but it was just not the same.
Maybe Van Gorder simply had better talent. But the final few years Martinez ran the defense, Georgia fell back in the SEC East.
Richt went looking for another Van Gorder. He’d never put it like that, but you know it’s true. He needed to have someone help Georgia win games with defense again.
Richt talked with Bud Foster at Virginia Tech and Kirby Smart at Alabama, who both reportedly turned him down. But the third choice might turn out to be the best all along.
Todd Grantham is like Van Gorder. He’s a little off, which is good for a defensive coordinator. Just think of Erk Russell. He used to bloody his forehead by banging his players’ helmets. He used to run down the sidelines when one of his cornerbacks made an interception.
We all loved Erk, but he was a little crazy -- in a good way.
Grantham is the same way. He cursed out his players in his very first game last year. He did the choke sign to the Florida place-kicker. Then this year he looked like a WWE wrestler going nose-to-nose with Vanderbilt’s head coach.
That’s what Georgia needed. That’s why Georgia has won nine in a row. The head coach is “Saint Mark,” a good man who has a calm demeanor that can sometimes border on a peaceful Sunday nap. But Grantham is nuts, and his defense has taken on that same personality.
“From the schemes to his demeanor, his fire and everything that he brings as a coach on a defense ... we want to play for him,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “We want to do our very best, and he motivates everybody each and every day.”
Last season, in Grantham’s first year, his 3-4 defense went through growing pains. The team didn’t have the right type of players in certain positions. The players often didn’t even know what Grantham wanted them to do. But now, with a little time, things have fallen into place.
“It’s pretty much second nature to us now,” defensive end Abry Jones said. “He brought an attitude to us, and we pretty much just took on a form of his attitude.”
Saturday’s game really outlined the theme for the entire year, as the defense bailed Georgia out. It was an ugly game, as Georgia’s offense sputtered with no running backs to brag about. But the Bulldogs’ defense completely shut down Kentucky’s running game, making it almost impossible for them to score.
After watching the UGA defense a year ago, you never could have guessed the turnaround would happen so fast. But it did.
When you see how Georgia ranks in the major team defensive stats in the SEC, the Bulldogs are third in almost every one, right behind Alabama and LSU. And if Georgia is going to play with those big boys, the Bulldogs have got to do it with defense.
“I’ve seen young men change their habitual traits, their habits,” Grantham explained. “I’ve seen them create mental toughness. I’ve seen them learn to play the game the way you’re supposed to play, to play with effort and energy.
“They started believing. Belief is a powerful thing. When guys start believing in what they’re doing and what you’re coaching them to do, you can do a lot of things.”
Georgia will do something most never thought the Bulldogs would do when they play for the SEC title in two weeks, and Grantham deserves the credit. There have been some very good individual performances for the Bulldogs, but the MVP of this team is the defensive coordinator.
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