ATHENS — During the offseason, it was perhaps the largest point of emphasis for the Georgia defense. During the preseason, head coach Mark Richt said the team increased its contact drills to improve on last year’s failures.
But seven games into the season, the tackling is still a work in progress, and that’s a major concern for the Bulldogs as they prepare to take on Florida’s spread offense and quarterback Tim Tebow.
“It’s been something that’s been inconsistent,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “We’ll have good games where we’re tackling well; then there’s times we miss tackles in the open field, which leads to those extra yards that kill us, that keep drives going. As linebackers, we feel like we’re the anchor for the defense.”
That anchor hasn’t held for much of this season.
When fall practice opened, the depth chart at linebacker was four deep with talented players. But injuries and inconsistency have made this season a struggle, and the challenge reaches its crescendo this week.
“Florida, they’ll try to give you a lot of mis-directional stuff,” linebacker Darryl Gamble said. “It’s more of playing like a Georgia Tech team. You’ve got to play your thing, what you’ve got to do. If you’ve got to stay in this gap, stay in this gap. It’s just more misdirectional stuff, so if your eyes are good, you should be good.”
Gamble’s comparison isn’t exactly one that will calm the fears of many Bulldogs fans.
A year ago, Georgia Tech’s attack racked up nearly 500 yards of offense against Georgia, with a lack of fundamentals being the primary culprit for the Bulldogs.
This season, Florida’s offense hasn’t been nearly as explosive as in years past, but the Gators are still dangerous.
Florida ranks sixth in the country in rushing, and while the vertical passing game hasn’t been a weapon, the Gators have successfully employed a short-yardage passing attack designed to pick up yards after the catch.
That leaves plenty of pressure on Georgia’s linebacking corps to pick up its intensity this week and shut down what Florida does best.
“It’s going to make the difference in how many points they score offensively,” Curran said. “If that run game isn’t clicking, their go-to guys are (Aaron) Hernandez, (Riley) Cooper. We’ve got to be able to make plays in open space and wrap up, because that’s going to really make the difference.”
Hernandez, Florida’s star tight end, is a particularly daunting weapon. He leads the Gators in receptions this season, and he presents a serious challenge to a Bulldogs defense that has struggled to slow opposing tight ends.
In the seven games Georgia has played this year, four opposing tight ends have posted season highs in receptions and yards, while a fifth — Arkansas’ D.J. Williams — fell just shy of his high-water marks despite missing the first half of the game with an injury. On average, opposing tight ends are accumulating more than three times as many yards receiving against Georgia as they have against other opponents.
That’s a frightening trend given the success Hernandez has already enjoyed this season.
“The first thing is, you’ve got to know where he’s at,” linebackers coach John Jancek said. “They do a good job lining him up all over the field, so you have to have an awareness of where he’s at on any given play. And he’s a competitive guy, so you’ve got to match his intensity.”
There is, however, some reason for optimism.
Georgia has played much of the season without several of its top linebackers. Starting strongside linebacker Darius Dewberry missed two early season games. His backup, Akeem Dent, hasn’t played since the South Carolina game in Week 2. Sophomore middle linebacker Marcus Dowtin was off to a stellar start but sat out the past two weeks following ligament surgery on his finger. Despite what appeared to be a deep roster at the position, the Bulldogs have yet to play a game with their top five linebackers all available for action.
That will change this week as both Dent and Dowtin return to the field following Georgia’s bye week, and it’s not a moment too soon.
“It’s always exciting to have all your boys back playing with you, have somebody on the sideline rooting for you, critiquing you when you come back off to the side, just feeling comfortable when you go out, knowing that there’s another guy going in who knows what he’s doing,” Gamble said. “It’s a positive to have experienced guys waiting to get their chance.”
The extra week to prepare has also helped.
Jancek said the primary focal points for the linebackers during the past two weeks of practice have been taking good angles to the ballcarrier and being in proper position to make a tackle when contact is made.
The problems, however, have run deeper than that. Throughout the early part of the season, Georgia’s linebackers have missed, on average, three tackles per game, and it hasn’t been an issue of fundamentals. It has been about intensity.
With the extra week to rest and recuperate, the hope is that the intensity will be rekindled against Florida.
“We’ve got to do a good job in continuing to coach the fundamentals, but we’ve also got to have an edge when we go into the ballgame,” Jancek said.
So while Florida’s running game will challenge the Bulldogs, and the Gators’ tight end could be a thorn in Georgia’s side, neither will be the primary focus this week.
The starting point for the Bulldogs, Gamble said, is improving themselves.
“It’s just not thinking about them as much,” he said. “We can be our worst enemy. If we handle what we have to do, we should be pretty well off.”