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Post 2014 Georgia football preview: Defense

Thursday August 28, 2014

Players leaving on their own, players kicked off the team, players moving to offense, players moving from offense, walk-ons competing for starting jobs, a coaching change – and that’s just the secondary. While the offense, apart from graduating seniors, remained fairly stable from a year ago, upheaval has been the theme of the offseason on defense.

We’ll start with the coordinator. That Georgia could convince the rising star coordinator of the newly-minted national champions to make a lateral move both shocked and delighted the Bulldog fan base. Jeremy Pruitt’s track from high school innovator to Alabama to FSU and now Georgia might seem like the pendulum swinging back the other way. Where the previous coordinator was praised for his NFL experience and sophisticated scheme, Pruitt’s appeal comes from his high school roots and his emphasis on simplicity. That’s not to say that his scheme is vanilla or elementary. His approach is just more straightforward: “If you can’t execute it, we’re not going to call it.” One of his biggest jobs has been to reduce or eliminate the confusion and chaos that was so obvious on the field last season.

Georgia remains nominally a 3-4 defense. As with the previous coordinator, that 3-4 is just a starting point. You’ll see different combinations along the line of scrimmage as well as additional defensive backs. We saw last week how even 3-4 defenses often use nickel personnel (with five defensive backs) to defend modern spread offenses. Pruitt hasn’t committed to much of a depth chart for a few reasons. First, many roles are still up in the air even as we approach kickoff. But more importantly, Pruitt’s formations and personnel will change often enough situationally that it’s not worth much to dwell on one possible combination. Pruitt’s objective is to cause confusion for the offense while making sure every defensive player knows the call.

Pruitt, in addition to coordinating the defense, will coach defensive backs. The offseason saw a complete shakeup of the defensive staff, and the Bulldogs welcome three new assistants along with Pruitt:

  • Tracy Rocker (defensive line / weakside linebacker): Rocker’s name might be familiar to those who remember him as a standout player at Auburn. He’s coached in college (as part of Auburn’s 2010 national title staff) and most recently in the NFL.
  • Kevin Sherrer (strongside linebacker / star): Sherrer came by personal recommendation of Pruitt. The two have strong ties from their high school coaching days as well as from time together at Alabama.
  • Mike Ekeler (inside linebackers / special teams): Ekeler has coached linebackers for major programs (Southern Cal and Nebraska). He was also a part of LSU’s 2007 national title team.

An overall theme on the defense is lighter and more agile players. That’s evident up front where only one of six players on the tentative two-deep tops 300 pounds. It’s a change in approach from the days of John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. There’s always a concern about lighter guys against power running attacks, but 1) Georgia won’t face many of those and 2) there are some heavier options on the bench. Georgia’s defensive line loses the versatile Garrison Smith, but nearly everyone else returns. The Dawgs won’t rely much on newcomers up front. The names are familiar – DeLoach, Drew, Thornton, Bailey, and Dawson. Redshirt freshman John Atkins is one of the bigger linemen at 322 lbs., and JUCO senior Toby Johnson is another strong and experienced player who should see action. The only true freshman is Lamont Gaillard. Gaillard might play, but it would take a rash of injuries for him to see a lot of time. The starters here won’t matter much – you’ll see a healthy rotation.

The strength of the defense should be in the linebacker corps. Everyone returns. You have skilled outside linebackers in Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd. You have veteran inside linebackers in Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson. What’s interesting is the movement behind that returning group. Wilson missed some time in preseason and has competition for his starting job from Tim Kimbrough and Reggie Carter. This development has surprised a lot of people since Wilson’s high tackle numbers have earned him national preseason honors. But when a lot of those tackles come in the style of Keith Brooking, there’s room for a challenge from inside linebackers who can take on blocks and attack the line of scrimmage. That’s what we’re seeing here.

As the pass rush specialists, outside linebacker is a glamour position in a 3-4 defense. There’s a lot more to the position though, and certain responsibilities have humbled even gifted defenders like Floyd. Pruitt insists that “We’re not gonna play (nickel coverage) with linebackers,” so it should be rare to see an outside linebacker hung out to dry in a mismatch with a speedy receiver. There’s also some nice depth. Davin Bellamy has earned playing time, but he’ll be suspended for the first two games. That suspension (not to mention an outstanding camp) has opened the door for true freshman Lorenzo Carter. Carter, a 5* Signing Day coup, has lived up to his billing well enough to prompt his position coach to say that Carter has the potential to be “one of the best ones to come through here.” Though an outside linebacker, Carter is versatile enough to be lined up anywhere – even over center. Moving a pass rusher around to confuse the offense is something we saw with Clowney at South Carolina, but we’ll stop the comparisons with that outstanding player there. It’s enough to say that Carter has earned immediate playing time.

For all of the hand-wringing you might have heard about the Georgia defense, the front seven looks fairly solid. There’s ability, experience, and depth. So what’s the problem? It’s time to talk about the secondary.

Whether it’s the third-and-longs, the pre-snap confusion, the lack of turnovers generated, or a specific play against Auburn or Nebraska, we’re all too familiar with the adventures of the 2013 secondary. Now take away four players with starting experience – all highly rated prospects. Welcome to 2014. Matthews, Harvey-Clemons, and Wiggins are no longer with the program. Brendan Langley, who saw quite a bit of playing time earlier in the year at cornerback, is now a wide receiver. There are only a handful of returning players who saw significant time last season: Swann, Bowman, Moore, and Mauger.

With that situation, Pruitt – who will coach the secondary – has had to put together a unit that includes several true freshmen, three former members of the offense, a JUCO transfer, and walk-ons. The depth chart has all the permanence of a middle school relationship, but we can say one thing – Damian Swann has earned one of the cornerback spots. Swann has made the most of the coaching change and seems poised to put a disappointing 2013 behind him. Pruitt isn’t quick with praise, but he singled out Swann as someone ready to play what Pruitt considers “winning football.”

After Swann, it’s anyone’s guess. Bowman is the most experienced player, but that experience is relative. Georgia signed one of the top JUCO cornerbacks – Shattle Fenteng – and Fenteng is likely to see much of the time opposite Swann. True freshmen Malkom Parrish and speedy Rico Johnson, a former wide receiver, will also compete for playing time. Georgia’s nickel or “star” position will be held down by a defensive back. Former tailback J.J. Green has worked almost exclusively at star, and we could also see true freshman Dominick Sanders or Parrish there as well.

The cornerback rotation is a Biblical truth next to the uncertainty at safety. Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger played often in 2013, and the senior Moore seems more likely to see the field first. Cornerback Reggie Wilkerson impressed in the spring of 2013 but missed the year with a knee injury. He’s moved to safety and should get a look. One of the nice stories of the summer was the rise of walk-on Aaron Davis. Davis is intelligent with a command of the defense, and he’s making it tough for coaches to keep him off the field. Cornerbacks like Green and Sanders could even line up at safety. I don’t think Pruitt is being coy about the lack of decisions in the backfield. The number of newcomers and the general unfamiliarity with a new defense means that the evaluation is ongoing even right up through game week.

It’s positive that there are options, but there’s a reason why Pruitt is going gangbusters recruiting defensive back talent. The attrition was significant in terms of talent if not experience, and the staff has had to get creative to fill those holes. Pruitt will do what he can in terms of fundamentals and getting the defense lined up correctly, but the success of the secondary will come down to talent – is there enough to work with, and how quickly can the rushed training become instinct?

The one thing to remember is that the secondary doesn’t operate by itself. The ability of a talented front seven to create pressure and cause confusion will do a lot to help the secondary along. Ideally, the pressure will cause rushed passes and poor decisions that lead to turnover opportunities. If that pressure doesn’t develop, the inexperienced secondary will show. It’s to be expected with good coaching that the unit will improve as the season goes on and the roles become more defined. The problem of course is that two of its biggest tests will come in the first three weeks of the season.

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