An easy sales job: Players buy in quickly to Lakatos’ coaching style

ATHENS — It’s safe to declare Scott Lakatos a “player-friendly” coach.

Not that he takes it easy on his players in practice, but Lakatos has brought a style defensive backs at Georgia like to play.

When members of the secondary talk about the new defensive backs coach, the tone of the conversation picks up enthusiasm.

That’s because Lakatos wants his players to go after interceptions, attack ball carriers and play press coverage.

This, players say, makes practice less of a job and more about playing the aggressive style they crave. To say Lakatos is a welcome change would be an understatement.

“I love how he coaches me,” safety Nick Williams said. “It’s different from last year. He’s more hands-on. When he gets on you, he gets on you in a respectful manner. He’ll coach you hard, but he’s just about football. It’s noticeable.”

The biggest change, what players are most excited about, is the philosophy involving interceptions. The Bulldogs snatched only 10 picks last season, ninth in the SEC. Now, Lakatos is installing an interception-minded system that differs from Willie Martinez’ teaching.

“It’s more ball,” cornerback Vance Cuff said. “Coach Martinez wanted you to play the man, the hand and basket. He (taught) that in certain techniques, but Coach Lakatos, he wants the ball. Yeah, he wants the ball.”

The tendency in going after a big-play interception, and missing, is giving up a big play. Cuff says if the Georgia secondary can remain principled in what Lakatos is teaching, they can make calculated risks. The “bend-and-not-break” mentality is long gone.

“The thing of it is, if they make a mistake, it’s an explosive play,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “If you give up a lot of big plays, you’re going to give up a lot of points. The one thing we want to do is be hard to score on. To do that, you’ve got to eliminate big plays.”

Playing more press coverage is another aspect of Lakatos’ installation that has players raving. Lining up closely on a wide receiver and jamming him at the snap is a physical way for a cornerback to make a living. And Georgia’s cornerbacks can live in physicality now, thanks to Lakatos.

“My preference is to press,” cornerback Brandon Boykin said. “I like being physical and getting up on the line, so I really like it. I think the more we play it, I think everybody enjoys it, and we’re learning the techniques and the things to get up in the receivers. It’s fun to knock them off their timing and to frustrate them.”

Most of Georgia’s secondary didn’t play press coverage in high school, and it’s not a technique they did much of under Martinez.

“Basically, jamming, that’s what most corners really don’t know how to do real good,” sophomore cornerback Branden Smith said.

To combat the lack of experience, Lakatos has been teaching the fundamentals, building up his defensive backs’ confidence this spring.

Most, like Boykin, already talk about press coverage like savvy veterans.

“You want to keep your eyes on their hips and just aim for those numbers,” Boykin said. “Get as much contact as you can before they get leverage on you. You’ve got to turn your hips to get contact on them to knock the timing off between him and the quarterback.”

Corners enjoy jamming receivers at the line, and in turn, safeties like to deliver big hits. It’s all about physicality, and Lakatos plans to unleash his safeties on opposing offenses.

“He’s big on putting your face in and striking people,” Williams said. “He’s a very aggressive coach. He’s about being aggressive. He’s about setting the edge, setting the tone. It isn’t about laying back. If you’re going to catch a touchdown pass on us, you’re going to pay for it. I love that about him.”

Adding the new ingredients in Lakatos’ coaching bag, Georgia’s secondary has a new blend of aggression, attitude and a ball-hawking mentality. The players have responded in an according manner, increasing their drive to learn and get better, Lakatos says.

“I think just developing a great work ethic, that’s the biggest thing,” he said. “They’ve been great. They’ve been doing stuff off the field to get themselves ready, and they’re working hard on the field. That’s where you start. You get a work ethic, and then you get better.”

Working under a player’s coach in Lakatos has made the work ethic come easy.

Smith puts it simply regarding the new mentality.

“Faster, playing more man, and just everybody running to the ball,” Smith said.