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Wednesday February 15, 2012

It didn’t take long after Brian VanGorder took the defensive coordinator job at Auburn for people to notice that his former secondary coach Willie Martinez was available. Sure enough, it looks as if Batman and Robin might be joining forces again.

Before we get all hah-hah-WillieMart, let’s distinguish between what Martinez did as a position coach and what he did (or didn’t do) as a coordinator. Since Martinez arrived in Athens in 2001, we’ve been in what should be considered the golden age of Georgia defensive backs. The Dawgs have had periods of outstanding defensive backs before, especially in the early 80s, and there has been the occasional Ben Smith or Champ Bailey. But I don’t think we’ve seen this kind of sustained run of quality from the position, and its legacy of producing professional-grade talent continues today with guys like Boykin.

If you care to, think about the state of the defensive backfield in the 1990s. You know – the one against which Ben Leard and Ronney Daniels played catch for three hours. In the entire span from 1991-2001, there were only four Bulldog defensive backs drafted: Carlos Yancy in 1995, Champ Bailey in 1999, Jeff Harris in 2000, and Jamie Henderson in 2001. Things were improving at the tail end, but the new coaching staff introduced in 2001 poured gasoline on the ember. In the comparable 11-year Mark Richt era, there have been eleven members of the UGA secondary drafted – twelve if you include Paul Oliver’s selection in the supplemental draft.

Better talent? Sure. That group also included some longshots. Jermaine Phillips and Bruce Thornton started out on the other side of the ball before becoming NFL-quality defensive backs. Thomas Davis was a find, and Tim Jennings remains the ultimate diamond in a rough. Tra Battle was thrown onto the field as a walk-on and developed into not only the hero of the 2006 Auburn game but also a good enough player to have a cup of coffee with a few NFL teams. There was some coaching and development going on.

That’s nice history, but the question going forward is whether Brian VanGorder and Martinez can catch lightning in a bottle and do it all over again. Will they be able to turn Auburn’s defense around to the extent that the Georgia defense improved from 1999 through 2002? The coaches might be the same, but several factors are different.

  • Returning talent. The Georgia defense really wasn’t the problem in 2000. The collection of talent on that side of the ball was the primary reason for Jim Donnan’s damning “55 years” enthusiasm. A good bit of that talent went pro after the 2000 season, but there was plenty left to work with. Auburn returns 9 defensive starters in 2012. That’s a good starting point, but it’s a group that didn’t improve very much during the season or perform well against good teams.
  • Mojo. In 2001, both BVG and Martinez were plucked from relative obscurity by Mark Richt. They were unproven on the big stage and hungry. Within four years they had established themselves as coaches on the rise, and it was a matter of time before each went on to bigger and better things. Both come to Auburn on different trajectories. VanGorder returns to the college ranks after an unsuccessful brief stint as a college head coach and a lukewarm few years as an NFL coordinator. Martinez is back as a position coach after struggling as a coordinator, and his Oklahoma secondary wasn’t a strength last season. That history and the need to prove themselves once again might be motivation, but there can also be an awful lot of pressure on two guys who now have very public track records.
  • It’s not the same SEC. SEC offenses are more diverse and productive than they were during VanGorder’s time at Georgia. There’s an interesting discussion about the future of SEC offense that will impact this environment of offense. Martinez wasn’t particularly successful at adapting. If there is a “Sabanization” trend away from the spread, does that put things back in VanGorder’s comfort zone?
  • The supporting cast. VanGorder and Martinez won’t be the only defensive coaches. Jon Fabris’s bizarre kickoff rituals aside, Fabris and Garner put together some very talented defensive lines whose reserves were good enough to leave early for the NFL. A weak link on the rest of the defensive staff could be damaging.

None of those are reasons why the duo can’t succeed again. They’re both accomplished coaches. We can and should expect certain familiar fundamental traits to carry over to go along with wrinkles they’ve picked up over the past decade. VanGorder will likely remain strong at in-game adjustments. We can count on pressure. The level of success VanGorder and Martinez enjoy will depend on the details: can they work with the returning players, can they recruit at a high level, and can they thrive in a different SEC?

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