ATHENS -- In some corners of the Georgia defense, there is bravado. Among others, there is cautious optimism.
But everywhere there is a sense that the Bulldogs’ young and inexperienced defense doesn’t need to play that way. The players are not embracing the conventional wisdom that the Georgia defense just needs to play well enough to let the prolific offense win games.
“The defense needs to be great because we want to be great,” defensive back Damian Swann said. “We don’t want to put our offense in a situation where they feel like they have to carry the team.”
Inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera is in the bravado corner. He was a freshman on the 2011 defense, which was the best statistically Georgia has had in the past decade. Herrera thinks the 2013 defense, despite returning just three full-time starters, can be just as good and maybe better.
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And there is little doubt in Herrera’s mind about comparing this year’s unit to last year’s defense, which had six players drafted but didn’t live up to expectations.
“We’re gonna be better than last year,” Herrera said.
There isn’t much question that there is talent on this defense. The list of projected starters and contributors is full of players who were four- and five-star recruits. So it’s just a matter of how quickly (or if) those players can live up to expectations.
And given the schedule, with the first two games against fellow top-10 teams, gradually improving won’t quite cut it.
Two years ago, Georgia’s defense ranked fourth nationally in total defense, as measured by yards allowed. It was fifth in scoring defense, which defensive coordinator Todd Grantham says is his preferred measurement.
Last year, the Bulldogs slipped to 32nd in total defense and 18th in scoring defense. The run defense was the big problem, ranking 77th nationally. Grantham has pointed out that Georgia faced two triple-option teams, Georgia Tech and Georgia Southern, but the Bulldogs also faced Georgia Tech in 2011, and if the Georgia Southern game (312 rushing yards) is removed, Georgia would only improve to 60th.
Bottom line, last year was a disappointment, given the experience. This year’s Georgia team could equal last year’s statistics and be considered in a better light.
“We always have goals,” Herrera said. “We have goals each week, and we have goals for each game, and we have goals for each year.”
And what are those goals for this year?
“I can’t tell you that,” Herrera said with a smile. “You’ll see when we get out there. We’re gonna hit those goals.”
Grantham didn’t want to get into comparing this year’s defense to any other year. He did say the advantage this group has over the one entering 2011 is that it has better depth, particular with edge rushers, and the players have better knowledge of the system, given this is Grantham’s fourth year.
“It’s easier to implement one, two or three new guys, than 11 new guys,” Grantham said. “If you’ve got seven or eight guys out there that kind of know things ... and now that new guy knows how to play, then that helps your team.”
Another theme the players expressed is that they’re not looking ahead to their pro careers. Defensive lineman Garrison Smith is the only senior expected to start, and only a handful more will be draft-eligible; none were rated among the top 100 draft prospects in a recent posting by CBSsports.com. Perhaps two of the biggest impact players are only sophomores: outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons.
“I think once we get mold together, I think we can be great,” Swann said. “And it goes back to we really don’t have to worry about guys thinking about the NFL, thinking about coming out next year, because it’s not their time. They’re not eligible for the draft. I think that’s a plus for us, and I think the fact that these guys are pretty much hungry to make a name for themselves on this level and not on what they’ve done in the past.”
From all accounts, Georgia’s offensive players have been impressed by the defense, going back to spring practice. Receiver Chris Conley granted that the expectations overall are “a little bit tempered,” but the junior sees a lot of ability and hustle.
“They’re young, but they’re extremely talented. But the biggest trait about them is they’re hungry,” Conley said. “We’ve got guys who will come through on a play, get chop-blocked, get cut-blocked, get up, run all the way across the field and make a play. That’s something you don’t see every year. Someone who has that much drive and fire in them. But we have multiple guys that have it.”
The verdict will come very early. Clemson has an All-America candidate in receiver Sammy Watkins, a darkhorse Heisman candidate in quarterback Tajh Boyd and a high-tempo, quick-scoring offense.
Perhaps Georgia, with 10 starters back on offense, can just win an offensive shoot-out. The defense understandably would rather it not come to that.
“The defense definitely can’t get in that mindset, because defense wins championships,” nose tackle Mike Thornton said. “And we’re trying to win championships around here.”
It was pointed out to Herrera that if the defense is very good, then the offense won’t have to score 40 to beat Clemson.
“Yeah,” Herrera said. “But they still probably will.”