ATHENS -- No, there has not been a Shawn Williams moment on the Georgia football defense. Unlike last year, when things got dire, no member of the defense has gone public to eviscerate the unit, and there’s not much indication it has been done privately.
“I don’t think we have any guys playing soft,” sophomore linebacker Jordan Jenkins said, using the term Williams did last year, igniting the defense to a fast finish. “We’re definitely fighting and trying to make plays. But we’re just not executing and committing all the way to it.”
Indeed, execution, not emotion, remains the emphasis on Georgia’s beleaguered defense. And the tone remains upbeat, even from fiery coordinator Todd Grantham, who doesn’t want to lash into a young unit.
“These guys are trying and they’re close,” Grantham said. “The end results sometimes isn’t what you want it. But if you go back and look ”
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Then he listed the successes: First-down defense, as well as sacks coming because of coverage sacks.
“The bottom line is, we didn’t have any turnovers and we didn’t get off the field on third down,” Grantham said. “It’s really not anything magical. It’s about understanding here are the issues, and here’s what you gotta do to get them fixed.”
The issues are pretty clear:
Georgia has given up at least 30 points in five of its six games, the exception being North Texas. Even if three special teams and one offensive touchdown is taken out, the Bulldogs are still giving up 29 points per game.
The defense has forced just four turnovers this season, after getting 62 takeaways during the past two years.
The pass defense ranks 12th in the SEC, and the third-down defense is 13th.
There might not be yelling and screaming, but inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera was blunt about the frustration level.
“It’s pretty bad, because we want to win,” he said. “And we play defense, so we don’t like giving up points. We’ve just gotta work on that.”
Head coach Mark Richt was asked about the frustrations during his news conference Tuesday. He granted that no one was happy, but he said there was enough progress happening to make him feel it was moving in the right direction.
“With a lot of pups,” Richt added.
Five true freshmen have started on defense this year, and many non-freshmen are getting the first significant action of their college careers.
Richt also pointed out that end Garrison Smith is the only senior starter.
“As far as how we’re progressing now and how the future looks, I think we’re exceptionally bright,” Richt said. “We’re at Game 7 now, so we’ve played enough games to where some of these guys that were inexperienced when they got started aren’t anymore. They have a half of a season under their belt, so we’ve got to keep making plays.”
So how to fix the issues, particularly in the secondary? Grantham said that the team had one of its best performances on first downs all season against Missouri. He credited the secondary partially for that.
On turnovers, Grantham expressed optimism they will come. He pointed to 2010, his first season at Georgia, when Justin Houston took until later in the season to turn his sacks into forced fumbles. Grantham said the same happened for Jarvis Jones.
“Sometimes as a young player, just getting a guy down or making a tackle is kind of what you’re doing,” Grantham said. “As you get some experience and some savvy, you know I can remember (Bacarri) Rambo dislodging a few guys from the ball.”
Of course, the whole “future’s bright” thing doesn’t work for players like Smith. This is his final year, and while he has played well, he’s on a unit that has struggled.
“It’s easy for some guys, if things aren’t going their way, to be like, ‘We got three more years, it’s OK, just give up on this season.’ But at the end of the day, you can’t have that type of mindset. Next year’s not promised. Let’s be real,” Smith said.
Smith emphasized it wasn’t meant as a criticism of the young players. It just was worth noting to them.
“You’ve gotta keep that on the young dudes’ minds,” Smith said. “Because when you’re young, you don’t really think about that. You just think, ‘I’ve got plenty of time.’ You don’t really know when your time is up.”