Georgia finished the 2015 season with the top-ranked pass defense in the SEC, but many, including some Bulldogs fans, believed that number was skewed due to a schedule that included several run-heavy opponents.
The pass defense was far from a liability, but perhaps it wasn’t the infallible strength that statistics might indicate. In 2016, however, the Bulldogs made consistent strides in the secondary and the defensive line.
At the end of the season, Georgia was ranked second in pass defense, but it is arguably in a better place now that it was at this time last year.
The Bulldogs return a lot of key veteran talent, and there is reason to believe they will continue the growth they showed in Kirby Smart’s first season. Not all aspects of the pass defense were great, however, and there are some areas that will need to be better this fall.
Statistically, Georgia can only move from No. 2 to the top spot. The product and impact can drastically improve, though, and that’s the expectation from fans and coaches.
Passing yards allowed per game (SEC rank): 183.8 (2)
Sacks: 29 (6)
Interceptions: 15 (T-3)
Smart wasn’t all too thrilled with Georgia’s pass rush in 2016, but there are several young players who could take a big step forward this fall. The player who should lead the pack isn’t a fresh face, however.
Since he arrived on campus, Lorenzo Carter has tantalized fans with his immense potential. The 6-6, 242-pound edge rusher looks every bit the part of an NFL player, but his production has yet to meet expectations.
As a true freshman, Carter recorded 4.5 sacks as a rotational player and left everyone wondering just what he could do as a full-time starter. In 2015, however, Carter took a step back. He failed to register a single sack and earned only 19 tackles.
Working with Smart seems to have rejuvenated the outside linebacker. The former Alabama defensive coordinator continually pushed the message that it takes more than potential to become a high draft pick. After a slow start, Carter hit his stride midseason and finished his junior year with five sacks.
Now that he’s back for one last fall in Athens, can the physically-gifted linebacker finally become the pass-rush terror that many anticipated?
Best cover linebacker
In their 3-4 scheme, the Bulldogs have a much stronger group of pass-rushers than coverage linebackers. Simply put, Carter and Davin Bellamy are better at playing behind the line of scrimmage than they are chasing receivers and backs down the field.
That’s not to say Carter and Bellamy are major liabilities in coverage, but on obvious passing downs, they are much more likely to be coming after the quarterback. Inside linebackers Roquan Smith, Natrez Patrick and Reggie Carter each bring something special to the table, but none has proven he can lock down a receiver.
To remedy this situation, Smart’s scheme relies heavily on the STAR position. We took an in-depth look at the position earlier this spring, but the STAR is essentially a hybrid linebacker/safety type. The STAR is a player who is more adept at defending the run than a typical nickel back but a greater asset in coverage than a SAM linebacker.
Georgia’s primary candidates to fill the void left by Maurice Smith at STAR are Tyrique McGhee, Deangelo Gibbs and Richard LeCounte. Longtime veteran Aaron Davis is also a potential fit for the position.
Like nearly every defensive scheme, Georgia uses a mix of man and zone coverage. At Alabama, Smart often employed pattern-match coverages that relied on defensive players reading their opposing receivers and switching from zone or man coverage based on the route being run.
This is an advanced scheme, and the Bulldogs appeared to run more traditional coverages in 2016 but that could change this fall. Georgia used both split and single-high safety looks last season, and it often rotated one safety over toward the strong side of an opposing formation.
Smart kept his defensive backs on either the left or right sight for most of the season, and there wasn’t one cornerback who would be used to shadow the opponent’s top receiver.
Georgia returns a veteran secondary in 2017, but losing Smith will impact more than just personnel. Smith had been with Smart for his entire career, and he was able to help teammates transition to the scheme he played in at Alabama.
Nobody has established himself as a true shutdown corner. The most productive defender has been safety Dominick Sanders, but he’s at his best when acting as a centerfielder who can read the quarterback and react.
Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker were the starting corners for much of last year, and they should retain those jobs this fall. Both players struggled at times in 2016, especially against bigger receivers, but they looked much more disciplined in this year’s G-Day Game.
— William McFadden (@willmcfadden) May 24, 2017
Neither should be trusted on an island as of yet, but that’s not to say they won’t be good players in the fall. It’s possible one of the newcomers like Gibbs or LeCounte makes a name for himself by season’s end, but that is far from a sure thing.
The strength of Georgia’s secondary comes not from the individual players but from the depth and collective skill of the unit.
One stat that must improve
This is not a stat so much as it is a quality that Georgia struggled against last season.
Nearly all of the defensive backs who received significant playing time were under 6 feet tall, which presented an obvious problem against taller receivers. Teams exploited that size discrepancy, again and again, resulting in some of the worst outings for the Bulldogs’ secondary.
In no game was this more obvious that Georgia’s trip to Ole Miss. The Rebels completed jump ball after jump ball and racked up 270 passing yards in the first half alone en route to a 45-14 blowout win. The Bulldogs’ four worst defensive performances came against Missouri, Ole Miss, South Carolina and Tennessee, teams that had size advantages on the perimeter.
Georgia made an effort to add size and length in this year’s recruiting class. Five of the seven defensive backs in its 2017 class are taller than 6-foot, and four are over 6-2. These players might not make an immediate impact this fall, but it’s a sign that Smart knows the Bulldogs need to get bigger at the position.
Better or worse
On paper, Georgia’s defense looks like one of the best in the SEC. There is talent in the front seven and great experience in the secondary.
The Bulldogs return nearly everybody from a unit that finished second in pass defense, and they added some intriguing pieces on the recruiting trial. An additional offseason of work in Smart’s system should prove advantageous for members of the secondary, where a split second can be the difference in broken coverage or an interception.
That additional experience alone would be enough to justify optimism for Georgia’s pass defense in 2017. If some of the new additions, like Gibbs or LeCounte, can emerge as a playmaker on the back end, however, the secondary could become memorable.
If the pass rush takes a step forward, the secondary finds the right blend of experience and fresh talent and Smart continues to advance his scheme, Georgia’s pass defense will be better this fall.