Better or worse? Previewing Georgia's defense in 2019
Editor’s note: This is the 2nd in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Coming Wednesday: Kentucky.
Georgia’s defense was mostly good a year ago, especially if you try to forget a few bad things at LSU, a few letdowns late against Alabama and the bowl game loss to Texas where the tapes should just get burned.
Good, but not great. Impressive most of the time, but feeble at times, feeble enough that you’d shake your hand and wonder why this unit couldn’t have been better.
The numbers were mostly good. Georgia ranked No. 14 nationally in scoring defense a year ago, allowing 19.2 points per game. They were No. 13 in total defense, which was second in the SEC behind only Mississippi State, the nation’s top-ranked defense. They were 12th against the pass nationally, and 31st against the run.
What was strange was Georgia couldn’t rush the passer, finishing dead last in sacks per game in the SEC’s regular season. There were times, too, when the secondary had some bad moments, especially Tyson Campbell, who was learning his way in the starting lineup as a true freshman.
But there was a lot of good, too, and there’s reason to think that Georgia’s defense will border on great in 2019. There’s a ton of talent, especially young talent that seems ready to make their mark on the game.
Here’s our look at things, for better or worse:
Pressuring the QB: Better
Outside of D’Andre Walker, there wasn’t a single player on Georgia’s defense who had more than 2 sacks last year. That was shocking, considering all the talent, to register only 24 sacks as a team in 14 games.
That will change this season. It has to. There are fresh faces who should help, most notably Nolan Smith, the nation’s top recruit, fellow freshman Nakobe Dean, and junior college transfer Jermaine Johnson. A lot of eyes will be on defensive end Malik Herring, who should be that guy that leads the team in sacks this year. In Georgia’s 3-4 set, the linebackers need to add pressure, too. There’s plenty of talent there in the outside positions, and there’s going to be a big fight for playing time during fall camp.
Run defense: Better
This will certainly be a point of emphasis this year, because you simply have to be able to stop the run in the SEC. The Bulldogs were just so-so last year, which is why we’ll see am improvement this go-round.
There’s plenty of experience in the interior of the defensive line, enough that as many as a half-dozen guys could see reasonable playing team. The linebackers are really stout, with Monty Rice, Tae Crowder and Brenton Cox set to have big years. They’ll need it. A run defense ranked in the 30s nationally won’t happen again. A bump up of 10-15 spots might just happen.
Passing defense: Better
Deandre Baker was the best player on Georgia’s defense a year ago, and the cornerback parlayed that into becoming a high pick in the NFL Draft, going No. 30 to the New York Giants in the first round. His loss is obvious, but the Bulldogs also seem set to cover the void.
Campbell has all the tools to be a great cornerback, and he learned a lot as a true freshman. Look for him to have a huge sophomore season. Eric Stokes took Campbell’s starting slot during the middle of the season, and he played well the rest of the way. They make for a great tandem. What really solidifies this group is the return of starting safeties J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte. They might very well be the best duo of safeties in the country. This group is going to have some big games, especially in the big games that matter.
Special teams: Better
One of the joys of having consecutive highly rated recruiting classes is that there is plenty of talent up and down the roster, and having enough studs to fill out special teams rosters is never a problem. So what might have been the biggest head-shaker of all a year ago what that Georgia ranked No. 128 out of 129 teams in kickoff return coverage. That’s totally shocking.
Georgia gave up more than 31 yards per kick, second only to Stanford on a national basis. There was a lot of work done in the spring to fix that, and it will certainly be a point of emphasis in fall camp. There’s just absolutely no way it can’t get better.
Well, better is it, obviously, across the board. Losing Baker and Walker is big, of course, but this next wave of talent is ready to explode in Athens. The back end of the two-deep depth chart is full of guys who would start at a lot of other schools.
The biggest concern in June is how quickly new defensive coordinator Dan Lanning puts his impact on this defense, and how quickly the players pick up some of the changes. This is not a major overhaul, so it shouldn’t be a problem. But it’s still worth watching throughout camp, and it’s going to be interesting to see how dominant they can be once the season rolls around.
The first 3 games should allow this defense to make its mark. Vanderbilt is breaking in a new quarterback and Murray State and Arkansas State shouldn’t put up much of a fight. Hopefully that will be enough to have this group ready for the huge Sept. 21 showdown with Notre Dame.