ATHENS -- In hindsight, Jordan Jenkins admits he wasn’t quite as confident last year about his Georgia defense. He estimates he was about 60 percent optimistic, but 40 percent unsure.
“I saw the talent we had, I just didn’t know if we were mature enough at the time,” Jenkins said. “I was just hoping by the time we got to that point we’d be a bit more mature.”
But Amarlo Herrera, another Georgia linebacker, doesn’t back down.
“I really thought we were gonna be good,” Herrera said. “If I said it, then I mean it. I thought we were gonna be pretty good. We just had a lot of young guys, inexperience.”
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And Herrera, like many around Georgia, felt talent would overcome inexperience. Spring practice provided evidence for that. In the locker room after the G-Day game, defensive coaches were smiling, while offensive coordinator Mike Bobo wore a scowl.
But it was a mirage.
Georgia’s defense, especially the secondary, was the weakness of the team. It finished 45th nationally and seventh in the SEC in yards per game, yielding 375.5 yards per game. The Bulldogs gave up a program-record 377 points, finishing tied for 78th nationally in that category.
By contrast, Georgia’s offense finished 17th in the nation and fourth in the SEC despite a rash of injuries affecting virtually all its skill-position players.
Jenkins admits now that last spring -- when the defense got the better of the offense in some scrimmages, including G-Day -- led to some false confidence.
“After all those practices, we might have got a little too over ourselves, we thought a little too highly, then we slacked off a little bit,” Jenkins said. “Then when it came down to putting the work back in, we were a little bit off, a little behind.”
This spring, the focus is more on technique and fundamentals, as players and a new defensive staff get to know each other. The talk is less brash -- at least for the most part.
“Our goals are way different from last year,” linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “We know what we’ve gotta do. No more talking, we’ve just gotta go out there and get better.”
Said Jenkins, “It’s a fresh start. But it feels like it’s a different vibe around here. Guys want to be holding everyone else accountable for something. We’re not letting guys get away with the small stuff, and the coaches certainly aren’t, either. They’re getting on us. I feel like we’re doing a lot of the small things now. We’re doing the technique work. ... The coaches really just want to see us succeed. They’re always available for us. They’re just going the extra mile, compared to last year.”
That’s all music to the ears of Georgia fans. Then again, so was the news last spring that the young defense -- only returning four starters at the time -- was outpacing the offense.
One quote from after last year’s first spring scrimmage, when the defense had a good day: “I felt it was very promising as far as what’s gonna come,” defensive end Ray Drew said.
Drew ended up having a good season, as did the defensive line. But other promising players didn’t come through.
Tray Matthews, the freshman safety who was the story of spring practice, couldn’t carry it into the fall.
Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, named the defensive MVP of spring practice, was suspended for the opener, and while he finished third on the team in tackles, he was not the difference-maker as the Bulldogs has hoped.
Key veterans like Jenkins and cornerback Damian Swann didn’t take the next step from starters to stardom.
Harvey-Clemons is gone now. Matthews, one of four players arrested two weeks ago on misdemeanor charges, is facing suspension and is fighting for his starting job.
But Swann and Jenkins are hoping to put last season aside and lead a turnaround.
“We’ve gotta play with a chip this year,” Swann said. “We didn’t play too well as a whole last year, and we definitely didn’t play well as a secondary. I think we have to play with a chip as a defense as a whole. Once we get everything installed, once we get the playbook down pat, I think we can be great.”
But notice Swann didn’t say they would be, and he added qualifiers.
The bravado, it seems, is left to Herrera.
“We’re gonna be improved. Hands down,” he said.
He was asked if the defense should have any statistical goals.
“We’re gonna be No. 1 in everything,” Herrera said.
Then he smiled.