As first reported by ESPN on Sunday afternoon, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is leaving the program after four seasons to take the same position with Bobby Petrino’s new Louisville staff. You can almost hear the collective shrug of the shoulders from the Bulldog Nation.
Grantham was hired for the 2010 season to turn around a defense that had finished 63rd in the nation in scoring defense in 2009 and 38th in total defense. Georgia reached out to Grantham for his NFL experience and his knowledge of the 3-4 scheme that was coming back in style thanks to Alabama’s ascent.
The 2010 season was a transition year, and the Dawgs didn’t quite have all of the pieces to implement the 3-4 yet. Grantham won fans over with a confident and aggressive tone even as the Dawgs started 1-4 and finished with the only losing record posted by a Mark Richt team. The development of Justin Houston into one of the nation’s top pass rush threats showed the promise of the new scheme.
Grantham also began hitting the recruiting trail hard in 2010, forming relationships that would bear fruit with several key defensive signings in the 2011 “Dream Team” class. Most importantly for Grantham, that class included JUCO defensive lineman John Jenkins. Jenkins was a prototype nose guard for the 3-4 and would anchor the interior of the defense for his two seasons in Athens. With a year of experience in the system and more pieces in place, the 2011 defense finished #5 in the nation in total defense and helped lead the team to the SEC East title. Jarvis Jones became an All-American outside linebacker, and Georgia’s defense was among the ten best in takeaways. After allowing 80 points in the first two games, the Dawgs only allowed more than 20 points once over the rest of the 2011 regular season.
The return of key draft-eligible underclassmen for 2012 sent expectations through the roof, and Grantham received a hefty extension heading into the season. That heralded defense failed to materialize thanks to a slew of off-season incidents that left defensive starters suspended through, in some cases, the first four games of the season. As a result, the Dawgs gave up at least 20 points in each of their first seven games with the exception of a dominant performance against Vanderbilt. Georgia survived a shootout with Tennessee, got embarrassed at South Carolina, and narrowly escaped at Kentucky.
It took a passionate appeal from senior safety Shawn Williams to turn around the under-performing defense. Georgia held opponents to an average of 8.6 points per game over the final five regular season games, including a shutout of Auburn and a six-takeaway, nine-point effort against Florida. Grantham’s defense had come into its own, and Georgia went from a midseason flop to a national title contender.
But as impressively as the regular seasons ended, the 2011 and 2012 postseasons weren’t kind to Grantham’s defenses. The 2011 defense faded in the second half of losses to LSU and Michigan State. In 2012 the defense yielded an average of 294 rushing yards to Alabama and Nebraska. These difficulties with a loaded roster against good opponents were enough to plant the seeds of doubt that turned into quite a bit of discontent in 2013.
Georgia had some issues with injuries and suspensions on defense in 2013, but the wholesale inexperience of the unit was the big story. There were new starters at nearly every position, and several freshmen saw starts and significant minutes out of necessity. The defense struggled from start to finish, and Grantham – right or wrong – took the heat. The defense generated alarmingly few takeaways, struggled when put on the field after a “quick change” situation like a turnover, and gave up several memorable long conversions. Fundamentals like tackling were inconsistent, and signs of improvement throughout the year were sporadic.
From the start there were questions raised about the complexity of Grantham’s scheme. NFL coaches have much more time to work with players than college coaches. That became less of an issue with the more veteran defenses in 2011 and 2012, but confusion reigned in 2013. Defenders began to hear from alums in the NFL about less-complex playbooks at the next level. The team struggled to get lined up, blown assignments were common, and timeouts were spent at key moments.
Following the season Mark Richt cited the inexperience of the defensive roster and stressed the benefits of “continuity.” He had faith that another year of development under a stable staff would yield improvement in 2014.
With the departure of half of the defensive staff in the past week, that continuity is out the window. Even if the rest of the staff is retained, three of the four defensive coaches will be in their first or second year with the program.
Since the eventual hire is rarely on the lists of candidates that everyone comes up with (no, Bud Foster or Ed Orgeron will not be Georgia’s defensive coordinator), we won’t try our hand at speculation. There are a few things to think about, though:
- Scrap the 3-4? Grantham’s results with the 3-4 were mixed. (To be correct, Georgia’s defense was multiple and often used five defensive backs due to the number of opponents running spread offenses.) At the same time, Richt is counting on the experience of the past season paying off as young players develop. Do you look for someone with 3-4 experience who might do a better job relating it to college players, or do you take the hit and bring in a new scheme? With what’s at stake in 2014, I can’t see Richt writing off another transition year.
- What about the rest of the staff? The new defensive coordinator will likely have the opportunity to build his staff, but should the two remaining position coaches be retained? The defensive line was one of the strong points of the 2013 defense, and first-year line coach Chris Wilson got positive reviews. He might even be a candidate for the coordinator position. Football aside, it would suck to see Olivadotti let go just as his family begins to see light at the end of the tunnel.
- Special teams? Again, new arrivals on the staff offer the potential for new outlooks on Georgia’s under-performing special teams units. What can new blood do in those areas?
- How soon? Signing Day is just a little over three weeks away. Georgia’s new defensive staff will have to shore up current commitments and continue to the work to close on several important uncommitted prospects. The sooner that work can begin, the better.