ATHENS -- The Todd Gurley saga and how his team overcame his absence has managed to overshadow what was the dominant topic around this team leading up to the season:
The creaky defense, and whether new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt could turn it around. The verdict, albeit just halfway through the season, appears to be “yes.”
Georgia ranks 20th nationally in scoring defense, and fourth in the SEC, at 20 points per game. That’s a nine-point improvement over last year, when Georgia was 79th in that category, and 11th in the SEC.
There’s also been a big improvement in total defense, as measured by yards allowed: Georgia ranks 16th nationally and fifth in the SEC, holding opponents to 320.6 yards per game. Last year, the Bulldogs were 45th nationally at 375.5 yards per game.
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“I feel like everybody’s happy right now on defense,” sophomore Leonard Floyd said.
It’s not hard to zero in on the two biggest reasons for the improvement: Turnovers and pass defense.
After just seven games, Georgia has already forced more turnovers than last year. Georgia has recovered seven fumbles this year and intercepted 10 passes. Last year, it was eight fumble recoveries and seven interceptions.
Meanwhile, Georgia is holding opponents to 215.4 passing yards per game, which is rather pedestrian (48th nationally, ninth in the SEC). But it’s better than the struggles of last year, when opponents gained 227.4 yards per game on Georgia, which was 59th nationally and ninth in the SEC.
The change in coaching staffs could be one factor, although it bears noting that Todd Grantham’s Louisville defense ranks first nationally in total defense, and fourth nationally in scoring defense.
Still, it’s clear that Pruitt’s influence on the secondary has been key.
“It’s way more fun because I can trust them,” Floyd said. “Last year, we’d get to third down, I’d be focused on, ‘I hope the secondary can cover everybody.’ But now I’ve got total confidence in them.”
Senior cornerback Damian Swann is a symbol of that turnaround. He struggled last year, and as the veteran cornerstone of the unit, that was a big reason it struggled. But this year, he has three interceptions and two sacks, and last week, he was named SEC defensive player of the week.
Asked how gratifying it is, Swann answered: “Very.”
Then he credited his own hard work, but also Pruitt, for moving him around so much on defense -- blitzing from the star position, or playing deep at safety, covering tight ends as well as receivers.
“I’ve received the coaching to put me in those spots, to help me as a player fundamentally,” Swann said. “And that’s what it was all about, getting back to the fundamentals of the game, being able to go out there and play fast. I give a lot of credit to Coach Pruitt with allowing me to play those different spots and do those different things, not being out there on an island all day trying to cover.”
The secondary’s improvement doesn’t tell the whole story. While Georgia’s front seven was pretty solid last year, it’s been even better this year.
Georgia’s run defense has improved, holding opponents to 105.1 yards per game (13th nationally) compared to 43rd (148.2 yards) last year.
The Bulldogs have also been a bit better pressuring the quarterback. Although the sack numbers are relatively unchanged (2.57 per game this year, compared to 2.54 last year), the team’s own stats say it’s averaging 12.42 QB hurries per game, compared to 8.38 last year.
It helps to have players, and the Bulldogs do, especially at linebacker. Ramik Wilson and Jordan Jenkins were named two of the 15 semifinalists for the Butkus Award, which goes to the nation’s top linebacker. And fellow linebackers Floyd and Amarlo Herrera just as easily could have been on the list.
As for Puitt, there are no fresh quotes from him to offer up. He has been on a self-imposed media ban since just after the 38-35 loss at South Carolina, and Pruitt took responsibility for his unit.
“It’s embarrassing for me to be part of a team that scores 35 points and you lose a football game,” he said afterward. “That’s pretty embarrassing. And I’d be the first to say I’ve gotta do my part on this side to fix that, so that don’t happen again.”
So far, Pruitt and his unit have succeeded.