Georgia football: 4 reasons the Bulldogs' 2020 defense could be Kirby Smart's best yet
If there’s one thing you could count on at Georgia last year, it was a defense that not only kept points off the board but consistently took the opposition’s running attack out of the equation. The most rushing yards it gave up in a game was 163 yards to Kentucky (in a water-logged affair that saw Lynn Bowden only throw it 15 times) while allowing 2 touchdowns on the ground all season.
The passing defense, while good, was carved up by Joe Burrow in the SEC Championship Game, but in fairness, almost every team that faced the eventual national champions had it happen to them. Burrow’s LSU team also scored 37 points, the most UGA allowed; the next highest point total allowed was against South Carolina (20). No other opponent scored more than 17.
It was a dominant defense, but still lacking in specific areas. Georgia finished 7th in the SEC in sacks (31) and tied for 9th in takeaways (16). In fact, the takeaways are the lowest since Smart arrived and well shy of the high-water mark under Smart of 27 set in 2016. The 31 sacks are an improvement over the 2018 mark of 24 but still 3 shy of the most a Smart-coached team has had in Athens.
But there’s a chance that the pieces are in place in 2020 to make up the most complete defense in the Smart era: one that not only thrives on limiting opponents through the air and on the ground but enjoys a consistent pass rush and can generate takeaways on a much higher level.
Here are 4 reasons it could happen:
Georgia didn’t suffer many crippling defensive losses, all things considered
Georgia’s defense didn’t see close to the attrition the offense sustained. That’s not to say there were zero key departures from the unit: big nose tackle Michael Barnett and defensive tackle Tyler Clark have graduated, as have middle linebacker Tae Crowder, safety J.R. Reed and backup defensive end David Marshall.
Granted, that’s a good chunk of production that will need to be replaced in 2020, and a great deal of experience as it’s a group that played in the program’s first national championship game since 1980. At the end of the day, it could have been much worse.
Depth, depth and more depth
Despite losing 5 key players, Bulldogs fans shouldn’t be too worried about the potential of the defense losing a step.
Sure, Barnett’s gone, but a former Freshman All-American in Jordan Davis — an 8-game starter as a sophomore in 2018 — will be ready to slide right in at the nose tackle slot. Malik Herring’s decision to return for his senior season, along with the return of Devonte Wyatt and a fully-healthy 5th-year senior Julian Rochester, should adequately compensate for the graduated linemen. SEC All-Freshman pick Travon Walker provides another layer of depth behind the Dawgs’ veterans up front.
And it’s not as if the linebacker corps is completely in trouble with Crowder’s exit: Azeez Ojulari, the Dawgs’ top returning pass rusher, will man the interior alongside leading tackler Monty Rice (89 tackles in 2019) and Walter Grant. There’s also plenty of talent in the rotation — sophomores Nakobe Dean and Nolan Smith, juniors Adam Anderson, Channing Tindall and Quay Walker and senior Jermaine Johnson come to mind, among others — that give Georgia an LB room that is fairly deep.
The depth on the defensive roster extends to the secondary, where Tyson Campbell and Eric Stokes will man the corners while the safety unit received an enormous lift with the decision by Richard LeCounte to return for 2020 instead of declaring for the NFL Draft.
Mark Webb will hold down the Star position but can easily be spelled by Divaad Wilson. Rising sophomores Lewis Cine and Tyrique Stephenson were able to make immediate impacts at their respective positions last season and will be counted on to be important parts of the rotation once more in 2020, while senior DJ Daniel joins Stephenson to form a strong cornerback quadrant with Campbell and Stokes.
The newcomers and redshirts are highly-rated and can contribute immediately
The Dawgs have been blessed to see a number of recruits contribute right away on defense, including Cine, Dean, Stephenson and Walker last year. There’s no reason to think that things will be any different with the incoming class.
While Georgia has plenty of help on the defensive line, a player like Warren Brinson, Jalen Carter or Nazir Stackhouse could work their way into the rotation as defensive tackle is a spot set to see significant turnover after the season ends. Speedster Kelee Ringo, who will eventually be charged with erasing downfield receiving threats, is another potential piece in a deep cornerback group. Safety Major Burns has a chance to make a little headway in a backfield that loses backup Otis Reese to transfer but will feature LeCounte and a group of returnees in Cine, Webb and Wilson.
It will continue a positive trend over the past several years
Last year, Georgia surrendered the country’s 4th-lowest total yards per game mark at 274.2. The breakdown: 198.5 through the air (24th nationally) and 75.7 on the ground (3rd in FBS) — while giving up just 12.5 points a contest, tied with Ohio State for the 2nd lowest total in the country.
That 12.5 points per game average is actually 6 points lower than 2018, when the Dawgs allowed 180.5 yards passing and 130.6 yards rushing to end the year with the 13th-ranked mark in total defense (311.2).
During the Playoff season of 2017, its 13.2 points allowed was tied for 3rd in the country, while its 158.3 yards/game passing defense (2nd), 112.6 yards/game rushing defense (12th) and 270.9 yards/game total defense (4th) were all top 12 or better nationally.
So it’s tough to point to any true down years defensively since Smart arrived in Athens. Looking toward 2020, the hope is that an improved pass rush and a secondary that could take on more of a ball-hawking mentality will see that passing yards mark trend back toward 2018 numbers, while the retooled rushing defense has a shot at picking up right where it left off.