ATHENS -- Todd Grantham is usually pretty tight-lipped with information about his players, schemes or basically almost everything. But when it comes to stats, especially good ones, Georgia’s defensive coordinator can rattle them off quickly.
Such as when the subject of forcing turnovers came up.
“I think since I’ve been here, we’re probably winning 95 percent of our games since we’re plus-one or more (in turnover margin),” Grantham said. “And we’ve had, what, 62 in the last two years. I think it’s critical you get turnovers.”
It’s perhaps as critical as ever this year for Grantham’s young defense.
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It has been well-chronicled how inexperienced Georgia will be on that side of the ball. Expectations should probably be tempered on a unit with two seniors and eight freshmen among the two-deep depth chart. And one of those seniors is a walk-on.
So there are indications that Georgia may be strategizing around it by emphasizing turnovers a bit more -- although Grantham will never come out and say that. But the fact freshman Brendan Langley vaulted to a first-team cornerback spot -- over sophomore Sheldon Dawson -- is a hint, along with fellow freshman Shaq Wiggins earning playing time. Langley and Wiggins have only been on campus a month, but in that time they’ve continually been credited with interceptions, whether it be in scrimmages or game-like situations in practices.
“You want guys that have ball skills,” receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “Those two have it, and have been making picks every scrimmage. In my mind, they’re ready.”
“That (turnover) is definitely always a point of emphasis,” linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “But, this year, I feel like and the defense feels like we have to cause as many turnovers as possible, so we need to get the offense on the field, rack up some more points and just help the team out. Because I think whenever we’re plus-1 or plus-2 in turnovers in a game, we end up winning the game.”
Last year, Georgia’s defense forced 30 turnovers, tied for 16th-most in the country. Georgia was plus-11 last year in turnover margin, ranking 20th nationally and fifth in the SEC. How valuable a stat is it? Last year, among the top 30 nationally in turnover margin, 26 had winning records.
Of course, the defense isn’t the only part of the equation. Georgia’s offense only turned it over 19 times last year, and the tailbacks were particularly good about holding onto the football. The Bulldogs lost fumbles eight times, but Todd Gurley only fumbled once and Keith Marshall fumbled twice. Quarterback Aaron Murray also only lost one fumble.
Murray said accuracy was one of his main focuses in the offseason. Specifically, he’s aiming to improve on his completion percentage, which was a career-best 64.5 last season.
“I definitely made an improvement last season, (but) I definitely think I missed a bunch of passes and it could’ve been even better,” Murray said. “So just improving my decision-making and my accuracy out there on the field.”
Murray only had 10 interceptions last year and has just 34 in 42 starts. But they’ve often come at bad times: three interceptions in the first half at Florida last year, an interception in each of the past two South Carolina games, plus a fumble in the 2011 loss to South Carolina, and two interceptions and a lost fumble in the 2011 SEC championship against LSU.
“You always wanna cut down turnovers, and I know personally I need to,” Murray said. “You know, I’ve been here, I know the system, I know my reads, I’ve seen pretty much every defense, so I know what I need to do as a quarterback to take care of the football, and that is my first responsibility. I’m looking forward to doing a better job that this year. Not only throwing the ball, but running the ball in the pocket, keeping two hands on the ball at all times when people are swiping. Things like that.”
Still, much of the onus for winning the turnover battle this year might be on the defense. A quick interception or forced fumble can end a drive and inject confidence into a young unit that may need it.
“I think that’s definitely something the coaches are thinking about,” Jenkins said. “Because Langley and Shaq, they both fight for the ball, they don’t wait, they jump at it at its highest point. They don’t sit there and wait for the ball to come down. They like going for the balls you have to leap for. That’s one thing I noticed about it and I really like. If it’s an easy pass in scout team, they don’t just try to bat it down, they try to catch it.”