UGA Football

Smart has defense’s attention but unit still needs to improve

Georgia head coach Kirby Smart instructs his defense on the sideline of his team’s 2016 season opener against North Carolina.
Georgia head coach Kirby Smart instructs his defense on the sideline of his team’s 2016 season opener against North Carolina. Georgia Sports Communications

Time and again during Georgia’s first spring scrimmage Saturday, the offense found room to run.

Head coach Kirby Smart said the offense gashed the defense for multiple “explosive runs.” In Smart’s vocabulary, an “explosive run” is any play that gains 15 or more yards. Furthermore, the offense also had numerous runs of 4-5 yards. And the Bulldogs’ offense found these seams despite Smart saying the defense regularly loaded the box.

Smart was encouraged that the offensive line opened so many holes for its runners.

But that was evened out by a pessimistic view of the defense, which Smart has routinely criticized this spring for being, in his opinion, too complacent.

“I do as good of a job as I can to encourage our offensive linemen to be physical at the point of attack, to get movement,” Smart said. “But we’ve got to play better on defense to challenge those guys. We’ll face some good D-lines in this conference. They’ll strike you and hat you up. If you don’t get movement, there’s not a lot of space in there.”

Isaiah Wynn, the first-team left tackle, noted that the offensive line has altered a few schemes this spring. The plays, however, have remained the same.

“Just having that under our belt and knowing we won’t have a new playbook or a new coach is very comfortable for us,” Wynn said.

Smart said he would withhold final judgment on the play of the respective lines in the scrimmage. Film review was to come Sunday; then on Monday, players would be informed how they graded out.

Still, there were a few takeaways Smart had in the immediate aftermath of the scrimmage.

“I know statistically we ran the ball well, but I can’t say they dominated up front,” Smart said. “Now, we did for the first time do ones on twos, twos on ones for some parts of the scrimmage, so you had some matchups out there that had not happened in practice up to this point.”

And as things stand this spring, one thing has remained consistent from Smart’s vantage point: the defense simply isn’t playing up to his standards. The Bulldogs return 10 starters from a unit that finished among the top five in the SEC in every major statistical category, including from total defense (327.5 yards per game; fourth) and scoring defense (24 points; fifth) to rushing defense (143.7 yards; fourth) and passing defense (183.8 yards; second).

Smart isn’t sure when his defenders will begin to resemble the stingy unit he demands.

But he attests the daily critiques — often harsh — have their attention.

“They all want to do well now,” Smart said. “We just have not had a lot of success at knock-back tackling. You’ve got to remember, I’ve been doing these types of scrimmages for 18-20 years. The first time you scrimmage, the first time you tackle since TCU, you don’t always tackle well, especially when you have to tackle Sony (Michel), Nick (Chubb), Brian Herrien. You’ve got some slippery guys back there – (Elijah) Holyfield, Prather Hudson. Those guys are tough to tackle.”

That lack of tackling dating back to the Liberty Bowl, Smart admits, does the defense no favors. But he said that's merely for the safety of both offensive and defensive players, hoping to avoid contact-related injuries.

Now that the defense has gotten used to hitting again, Smart foresees better play going forward.

“I expect the tackling,” Smart said, “to improve greatly by the next scrimmage.”

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