Better or worse? Previewing Georgia's defense in 2021
Editor’s note: SDS continues its annual preview of every SEC East defense with Georgia. Coming Wednesday: Kentucky.
Georgia’s offense is going to be good in 2021, probably as good as it’s been in the Kirby Smart era. Quarterback? Check. A stable of talented wide receivers? Check. A deep running back room? Check. A sturdy offensive line? Well, there are a few questions there, but those should get sorted out.
Can you win with a great offense and a less-than-great defense? Now more than ever, but it can catch up to you. Getting into offense shootouts and relying on a “bend, don’t break” defensive strategy is a slippery slope and can lead to plenty of fatigue later on in the season.
Which brings us to Georgia.
Smart, having helmed Alabama’s defense before returning to Athens, has understandably placed much of his focus on that side of the ball (some would say at the expense of his offense) and it’s paid off.
With Smart and Mel Tucker at the reins, it ranked 10th and 12th, respectively in 2016 and 2017 in Defensive SP+. It jumped to No. 8 in 2018. But it’s reached new heights under Dan Lanning, ending 2019 and 2020 ranked first in the category.
That’s thanks to an emphasis on stopping the run. Georgia ranked 42nd in FBS in run defense in Mark Richt’s final season in 2015, 36th in 2016 following Smart and Tucker’s arrivals, and 20th in 2017 before dropping to 31st in 2018. Under the guidance of Lanning and Tray Scott, it’s finished No. 1 in back-to-back years, and with little attrition from 2020 to 2021, expect very little to change.
But it’s come at a bit of a cost. The Dawgs were 88th in passing yards allowed last year after placing 12th in 2019. Two games stand out: Alabama and Florida, where Mac Jones and Kyle Trask carved up the Dawgs. Will Rogers and Mississippi State, molding themselves into Mike Leach’s Air Raid vision, saw plenty of success as well and might have sprung an upset if not for JT Daniels.
And after all of that, Georgia saw the exit of a number of defensive players in the offseason. Azeez Ojulari, DJ Daniel, Eric Stokes, Mark Webb, Monty Rice, Tyson Campbell and Richard LeCounte are all in the NFL, while Jermaine Johnson transferred to Florida State and Major Burns left for LSU. Smart, though, landed 2 huge additions through the transfer portal in Clemson’s Derion Kendrick and West Virginia’s Tykee Smith.
So what’s the prognosis for 2021? Let’s play better or worse:
Pressuring the QB: Better
Georgia led the SEC with 3.2 sacks per game in 2020. Anytime you lose one of the better pass rushers in program history (Ojulari), there’s bound to be some questions. But Adam Anderson (pictured above) will be the bell cow at this spot in 2021 and if early returns are any indication — 5.5 sacks — he’ll be capable of picking up right where his defensive partner left off, along with Nolan Smith in the Jack slot. I’ve long thought that Anderson could crack the double-digit sack mark, with a puncher’s chance at (possibly) breaking Jarvis Jones’ 14.5-sack mark in 2012. Sure, such lofty hopes might be a tiny bit optimistic, though.
Switching to defensive end, Travon Walker and Jalen Carter will provide plenty of pressure from DE. Nakobe Dean came into his own last year and while he didn’t have heavy sack numbers, that should change in 2021.
Even though Georgia lost Ojulari, it has plenty of players capable of picking up the slack.
Run defense: Same
It’d be a downright crime to say that the best run-stopping unit in the country will somehow take a step back from last year. Then again, topping last year might be difficult.
Eight of the Dawgs’ 10 opponents in 2020 ran for less than 100 yards; half were held to 70 or less. One, Tennessee, managed negative-1 yard rushing on 22 attempts.
It helps to have just about your entire corps of run-stoppers back, too. Devonte Wyatt and Julian Rochester’s collective decisions to return to settle unfinished business in 2021 can’t be understated. Jordan Davis could have called it a career as well after his junior season and made the jump to the NFL, but his return means an opportunity to improve on an already-high draft stock. Carter will be a key part of the equation here as well as he can play either on the edge as a pass rusher or inside as a run defender, while Warren Brinson should also take a jump forward.
They’ll be tested early. Georgia opens against Lyn-J Dixon (a Georgia product) and Clemson in Charlotte and then faces one of the conference’s top running backs in South Carolina’s Kevin Harris in Week 3. But they’ve already proven they’re up to the task, so there shouldn’t be too much cause for concern here.
In short, it’s business as usual.
Pass defense: Better
With the secondary losing 6 starters or key reserves, I declared a month or so ago that while this unit would be the biggest question mark, the addition of Tykee Smith from West Virginia improves the fortunes.
And that was before Smart acquired Kendrick from the transfer portal, which makes things that much more promising.
Kendrick is no stranger to big games from his time in Clemson and is an NFL-caliber player who should make a seamless adjustment to the SEC. While he’s the unquestioned starter at left corner, what about on the other side? Ameer Speed enters into his 4th season with the program but has been used sparingly at cornerback, while Jalen Kimber played in a handful of games last season and Kelee Ringo was hurt in his freshman campaign. We could see true freshman Nyland Green called upon as well. Expect that side of the field to be targeted heavily — at least early on — as there are bound to be some pain points with much less experience here.
The safety slots are much more secure: Tykee Smith will patrol the middle of the field with Lewis Cine after a pair of successful seasons at West Virginia, with Latavious Brini and Christopher Smith heavily involved in the mix. Look for Christopher Smith to be involved in some blitz packages, as well.
Not having to face DeVonta Smith and Kyle Pitts certainly improves the optics from last year, but although there may be an adjustment period for the younger players at right cornerback, things should trend upward collectively with Kendrick and Tykee Smith in the fold.
Jake Camarda laid claim as one of the nation’s best punters in 2020 and is back for a final go-around in 2021. The senior ended last year as the SEC Special Teams Player of the Year and a finalist for the Ray Guy Award, given to the best punter in the country.
His punting average of 46.6 yards was 4th in FBS, 2 spots higher than his 6th-place finish in 2019. The Dawgs will certainly welcome more of that as the Atlanta-area native is setting himself up to be punting on Sunday afternoons next fall.
As mentioned, we know what we’ll get from the run defense, and, despite losing Ojulari, getting to the quarterback shouldn’t be an issue. The secondary was the biggest concern, but Smart’s work in acquiring experienced, talented players to plug holes improves its fortunes going into 2021.
That should help this entire unit take a step forward this coming season, and if it can pass an early test against Clemson, things look very good in terms of an SEC championship and potential College Football Playoff berth.