There were, many forget, great moments in Todd Grantham’s four-year tenure as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. There were also great lows, which is how it finished, so when Grantham left for Louisville last January, many were happy to see him go.
Now Georgia and Grantham meet again, two weeks from Tuesday, in the Belk Bowl. And Louisville has the nation's sixth-best defense, as measured by total yards.
So does Grantham feel vindicated?
“Not really. I’ve always known I was a good coach in what I was doing," Grantham said. "If you go back and look at the changes we were able to establish and make at the University of Georgia in my time there, we were able to win games, we were able to put really Georgia back on the map from being relevant.”
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But Grantham, reflecting on his time at Georgia, didn’t ignore the final year, and all its struggles.
“We obviously had a really young team last year, and we kind of faced some veteran offenses, some veteran quarterbacks. And because of that we had to take some shots with those guys," Grantham said. "But I think they got better for it. They were able to mature. And that's one of the reasons they were able to have some success right now.”
Georgia's defense ranks 18th nationally this year under Jeremy Pruitt, who replaced Grantham two days after his departure for Louisville. There was definite improvement on that side of the ball for the Bulldogs this season.
But to be fair, the Grantham era had many positives too. The defense he took over in 2010 was coming off several poor seasons, and by 2011 the Bulldogs ranked in the top five nationally in total yards. The defense slipped the first half of the 2012 season, then came on strong in the latter half as the Bulldogs reached the SEC championship game for the second straight season.
“It was something that I’m very proud of," Grantham said of his four seasons at Georgia. "If you go back and look, I do feel like we changed a culture and developed the mental and physical toughness there. Going back to when I was first hired, and maybe the perception of the program, to the way it is now, we were able to win two SEC East titles and compete for an SEC championship. We had two 10-win seasons, 22 games won in two years.”
Grantham spoke Monday to Georgia beat writers, in a call set up by Louisville. Overall, he had only good things to say about his former team, especially the offense he will be facing on Dec. 30. He recalled how fun it was to be around center David Andrews, the leader of the offensive line, and how happy he was to see quarterback Hutson Mason have a good senior season.
And when first asked about Georgia’s offense, the first person Grantham praised Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, his colleague on Georgia's staff from 2010-13.
“Mike’s done a tremendous job with those guys. He’s passionate in his coaching. He’s got a great mind for what he wants to get done," Grantham said. "They’ve done a very good job of recruiting there. They’ve got some talented guys. So the combination of good coaching and good talent has allowed them to be one of the most explosive offenses in the country. And they deserve a lot of credit for the success they’ve had this year.”
Later, Grantham also complimented the job Pruitt has done at Georgia this year. The two know each other having both coached (at different times) under Nick Saban.
Grantham said he hasn't had time to watch Georgia this year, and said he hasn't been in touch with anybody at his former team since the bowl matchup was announced. He claimed that facing his former team wouldn't provide any extra excitement for the Dec. 30 game.
But he acknowledged he would say hi to some old friends before the game.
“I got a lot of respect for the people there, both the players and the coaches," Grantham said. "This isn’t the first time that a coach has faced a team that he was coaching the year before. It’s part of the business.”
The bowl game will be a chance to send out Louisville’s seniors with a win, but also propel the program to next season. That includes two former Georgia players who, due to different circumstances, followed Grantham to Louisville:
Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons after being dismissed by UGA, and cornerback Shaq Wiggins after electing to transfer. Both players had to sit out this year per NCAA rules, but Grantham said they had helped the team through their scout-team work.
“They’re excited to get back on the field in the spring and ready to compete for starting jobs,” Grantham said.
First, there’s the matter of facing Georgia. When it comes to gameplanning, it might be an advantage for Grantham to know most of the Bulldogs’ personnel, and having faced Bobo’s offense in practice the past four years. It could also be an advantage for Bobo and the Bulldogs.
But Grantham downplayed the whole idea.
“I don’t think that’ll play as big a factor as you guys will make it out to be,” Grantham said. “I think it’ll just come down to playing football. Obviously they’re a talented team, they’re one of the best offenses in the country. So we know we’ve gotta play well, and be ready for a big challenge.”