Better or worse? Previewing Georgia's defense in 2020
Editor’s note: This is the 2nd in a series previewing every SEC East team’s defense. Next: Kentucky.
Since arriving from Memphis to coach Georgia’s outside linebackers, Dan Lanning has made a name for himself as one of the top defensive minds in the country. His work at past stops was enough for Kirby Smart to bump him up to fill Mel Tucker’s spot as defensive coordinator when the latter was hired as the head coach at Colorado State.
And the move paid off: Georgia ranked 3rd in FBS in overall defense (275.7 yards per game) and 1st in rushing defense (74.6 ypg) last season. The 34-year-old has benefited from having a talented group of players at his disposal, and a repeat of 2019’s successes should see his name continue to surface as a legitimate head coaching candidate — especially if the Dawgs are able to develop a sustained pass rush and generate turnovers at a higher rate than they did last year.
What, then, should we expect from this year’s defense? Let’s play “Better or Worse?”
Key departures: Tyler Clark, DL; Michael Barnett, NT; Tae Crowder, LB; J.R. Reed, S; Otis Reese, S
Key returnees: Monty Rice, LB; Azeez Ojulari, LB; Devonte Wyatt, DT; Eric Stokes, CB; Richard LeCounte, S
Potential breakout players: Nolan Smith, DL, Quay Walker, LB; Jordan Davis, NT
There’s no doubt that the Dawgs are missing some key names from 2019’s roster. The main concerns are the line and safety, where a combined 7 players who either started or saw significant playing time in 2019 have departed.
But the depth makes it difficult to think that this group as a whole will be worse than last year. Smart’s recruiting prowess and Lanning and his staff’s ability to develop players, makes this a “next man up” situation in many cases.
Pressuring the quarterback: Better
Georgia has had its share of sack specialists — David Pollack and, more recently, Jarvis Jones come to mind — but this hasn’t really been a cornerstone during the Kirby Smart era. In 2019, the Dawgs accumulated 31 sacks, a decent number but far from prolific.
The good news is that many of the players responsible for that tally will return for 2020.
Seniors Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt will anchor a revamped defensive line and are the team’s bell cows when it comes to getting pressure on quarterbacks. Jack linebacker Azeez Ojulari led the way with 5.5 sacks as part of an impressive redshirt freshman campaign, with no reason to believe that he won’t be able to capitalize on that momentum. Monty Rice, the team’s leading tackler a season ago, is a known quantity. Quay Walker, who recorded 2.5 sacks in a backup role behind Tae Crowder at Mike linebacker, should challenge for the role full-time this season, while Mark Webb’s versatility at the star linebacker/safety hybrid spot is a plus. Nakobe Dean enjoyed a solid freshman season despite being limited by injury.
The Dawgs should also get plenty of help from players such as Nolan Smith and Travon Walker (2.5 sacks apiece). Smith, remember, was the No. 1 overall recruit in the 2019 class.
And Julian Rochester, who played in 4 games last year coming off an ACL injury, took a redshirt and will be an active part of the rotation at defensive tackle in blitzing situations.
On paper, that 31-sack total from a year ago looks as if it will be challenged.
Run defense: Worse, but not by much
On one side of the coin, it seems unfair to expect Georgia’s run-stopping corps to be better than last year.
If you’re giving up just 74.6 yards per game on the ground and 2 rushing TDs all season, you’re doing something right. And behind a defensive line that ranked as good as any in the country, running the ball against the Dawgs was a futile task.
That being said, this is the part of the defense that experienced the most turnover. Gone is Tyler Clark, the anchor of the defensive front, as are Michail Carter, Michael Barnett, and David Marshall. But Wyatt, while a talented pass rusher, will do his part in disrupting the run game, and Jordan Davis will step into the nose tackle slot left vacant by Barnett.
It was always going to be a tall order to match last year’s efforts in the run-stopping game, and that’s the only reason I put worse. But it certainly won’t fall off a cliff, either, and that’s a good thing. For perspective, the 2017 team that played for the national championship allowed 126 yards per game on the ground.
Pass defense: Better
The Dawgs benefit from having one of the top cornerback tandems in the SEC in DJ Daniel and Eric Stokes. Stokes, who mulled declaring for the NFL Draft, decided to return, and he’ll do so listed on some boards as a mid-1st round pick in 2021. There’s depth at both sides: Tyson Campbell should figure heavily into the rotation on the right side if healthy and could start over Daniel, while Tyrique Stevenson impressed as a true freshman. And there’s surely a place for 5-star Kelee Ringo, the No. 4 player overall and top-ranked corner in the 2020 recruiting class.
Toward the middle of the field, Webb returns at the star slot, but Stevenson’s immediate impact could mean that he could push for the position as well. Richard LeCounte’s return boosts a safety corps that saw the departure of Tyrique McGhee, J.R. Reed and Otis Reese, meaning Lewis Cine and Chris Smith will get their turn, possibly along with freshman Major Burns.
Special teams: Better
The punter from Norcross, Ga., isn’t going anywhere: Jake Camarda has held the job since his freshman campaign in 2018 and improved in his sophomore year in 2019, finishing No. 6 in FBS in average punting yards (46.84). Opponents didn’t do much with those punts, either, averaging just 8.8 yards on 12 returns.
Overall: About even, if not slightly better
Georgia’s defense wasn’t perfect last year. But, aside from a few exceptions, it did its part in keeping the team in games on a weekly basis, especially when the offense sputtered. The loss of personnel at safety and defense is a concern but one that can’t be mitigated. And the performance of the run defense last year was so good behind players who are gone now that it might be a stretch to expect that same level of play in 2020.
That being said, Smart continues to reload. He has added 8 5-stars on defense in the past 3 recruiting classes alone.
Taken as a whole, the unit should take a step forward. And with several players like Ringo and Burns making their debuts in 2020, the groundwork is there for it to get even better over the next several years.