ATHENS - It's easy to go into the season with a plan. It's another thing in the heat of a game to stick with it. And so we will see what comes of the new mantra for Georgia's defensive line.
Georgia's run defense was pretty disappointing last year, ranking 12th in the SEC, and getting gashed in some key situations. That was despite having as many as four players who will be drafted later this month (John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers, Cornelius Washington and Abry Jones), not to mention another one who could be drafted next year (Garrison Smith).
In diagnosing the problem, many around the program have pointed to stamina: The above five players were the only ones who really saw action during key times, and Jones missed the final half of the season with an injury. So it was no accident that, for instance, the run defense broke down in the second half against Alabama.
Smith thinks stamina was a big problem.
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“Last year there were times I basically played every snap, didn’t get a break at all," said Smith, a senior who will be the lone returning starter on the defensive line. "The thing is, even though I was still playing as hard as I could, if you cut that in half, and you get that much fresher with the reps, somebody else playing with you, you could be that much better just getting the rest time.”
None of this is a new revelation. Then-defensive line coach Rodney Garner admitted during the season that he needed to rest the starters a bit more. But it didn't really happen, whether it was because Garner didn't do it in the heat of the game, or defensive coordinator Todd Grantham didn't want to do it either.
It was a matter of trust, as in there wasn't enough in reserves like Ray Drew, Sterling Bailey and Mike Thornton to throw them into the game at key times.
“Really it boils down to who the coaches trust,” Smith said. “What they think is best for the gameplan, and what personnel they think they want to play. If they feel like a guy is ready they’re gonna let him play. If not, you always want to go into battle with your best weapons.”
Chris Wilson, the new defensive line coach, has vowed to spread the snaps around this year. And to that end he has praised the line's depth: Smith, Bailey and Thornton are the first-teamers right now, but Drew is joined by John Taylor, Chris Mayes and John Atkins in getting snaps with the first or second unit this spring.
Wilson has also de-emphasized whether a player is an end or a nose, and put more emphasis on where they will play in certain situations: For instance, Smith and Bailey are ends, but they will play inside as the nose in some sets.
But Garner and Grantham talked about spreading the snaps around last year too. It was pointed out to Wilson this week that when a game is in the balance it's human nature, or at least coaching nature, to rely on the players they trust the most.
"You're right about that, there's some trust factor that goes into that," Wilson said. "But there's also so much situational ball where you could steal some snaps for guys, and get them playing. It might be short-yardage goal-line, where you might get a kid hopefully not too many snaps, but that might be his role during the week. Or a short-yardage package in the middle of the field. And again, those are places where you could steal reps and give a kid 10-15 snaps a game that we have to have.
"In this day and age, playing 70 snaps as a D-lineman is counter-productive."
So is that a commitment this year to make sure it doesn't happen?
"That's our goal going into this deal, is establishing a role for all these guys, and playing the best players in the best situations," Wilson said. "That's us as coaches, we've gotta put guys in the right position to be effective. That's our job. That's what we're going into this offseason focusing on."
Head coach Mark Richt said there was rotating last year, but when Jones got hurt last year the staff didn't really replace him.
"At the end we probably didn't have enough guys that we felt comfortable putting in there," Richt said. "That was the main reason. We got a feeling that we're gonna have a higher comfort level with more guys than a year ago, basically."
For his part, Smith thinks there's much more confidence this year in the depth of the unit.
“Oh yeah, most definitely. Everybody’s developing and getting better right now," Smith said. "Mike Thornton, he’s made a tremendous improvement. Sterling Bailey has had tremendous improvement. John Coffee – I mean Johnathan Taylor – he’s getting so much better. He reminds me so much of myself, coming out of high school, having that raw talent, doing whatever you can do to make plays. Now you get to college, you’ve gotta get some fundamentals and technique. So that’s what his game is going through right now. If he gets it down he’ll probably be one of the greatest players to ever come through here because that man right there is one of the strongest men I’ve ever seen.
“Things like that is what gives me hope for the future, why I tell everybody that it’s not gonna be any fall-off. If anything, we’re gonna be even better than last year.”