ATHENS — If Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez was hoping for a grace period after receiving a hefty dose of scorn from despondent Bulldogs fans a year ago, he won’t get it against Oklahoma State.
The Cowboys’ triumvirate of quarterback Zac Robinson, tailback Kendall Hunter and wide receiver Dez Bryant could be enough to give Martinez nightmares after last season’s dismal defensive output, but instead of cringing at the thought of stopping three of the Big 12’s top offensive weapons, Martinez is excited to have an opportunity for his defense to prove its grit right from the start.
“It’s the first game, we’re excited about it, and in a lot of ways, playing a great team like that keeps guys focused,” Martinez said. “We know it’s going to be a tough challenge for us.”
Calling Oklahoma State’s offense a challenge might be a bit of an understatement.
With Bryant, the Cowboys have one of the most explosive wide receivers in the game. Bryant mixes size and athleticism, similar to the skill set of Georgia’s A.J. Green, and burned defenses to the tune of 1,480 yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago.
Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin — making the first start of his career — gets the daunting task of stopping Bryant, and after watching film on the star wideout, he’s not sure there’s a good scheme for doing it.
“It’s just having that mind-set that you’ve got to stop him,” Boykin said. “There’s really no strategy, you’ve just got to make it happen.”
Handling Hunter won’t be any easy chore either.
The junior tailback had nearly 1,800 yards of total offense last season — 1,555 of which came on the ground — and scored nine touchdowns to complement Bryant’s skills in the passing game.
At just 5-foot-8, 190 pounds, Hunter isn’t exactly a bruiser like the Bulldogs’ Richard Samuel, but his elusiveness makes him a particularly troublesome target for Georgia’s tacklers.
“If you don’t use the good techniques to get off blocks, he can really gash you,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “He’s an explosive back with good vision, and he can really get out there if you let him get loose.”
As good as Hunter and Bryant are, Robinson may be the key, and he’s capable of beating the Bulldogs in both the passing and running games.
Robinson threw for more than 3,000 yards and completed 25 touchdown passes a year ago, but added another 562 yards and eight scores on the ground, making him as vicious as any dual-threat quarterback the Bulldogs have faced.
“He’s a pretty rare athlete as far as running the ball,” Curran said. “We’ve faced some pretty good running quarterbacks, but he’s got the most experience, is the most polished as far as running and throwing, and he’s got guys around him that make him even better and even more of a threat.”
All of that adds up to an immense task ahead for a Bulldogs defense that slumped to the finish line last season, allowing 38 or more points in four of its last five regular-season games.
Of course, while the challenge may be daunting, Curran said Georgia’s defenders are hardly intimidated. There is a game plan in mind, and he thinks the Bulldogs could be just as big a headache for Robinson and company as the Cowboys are for Georgia.
“If everybody’s doing their job — containing the quarterback, stopping the run and making them kind of one-dimensional — it can be a long day for them,” Curran said. “We’re going to have to take away that run game and just contain Zac Robinson and not let him run around back there and just be physical with Dez Bryant and be physical with their playmakers. We’ve got to set the tempo from the beginning and not let them build any momentum.”
The challenge is big enough that one man won’t make the difference, safety Bryan Evans said. It’s about playing together, and that has been the theme of the offseason for Georgia’s defense.
So while Robinson, Bryant and Hunter offer an arduous first test to the season, it’s a test Evans said the Bulldogs have been studying for since December.
“We can go in with a lot of confidence,” Evans said. “I think our whole defense is pretty good right now, and if everybody gets back healthy, I don’t see why we don’t think we could beat anybody. If we click as a defense like we know we can, I feel we’ll be very comfortable going into Oklahoma State.”