Humility, hunger fuel Georgia defense heading into 2020
Sitting on Zoom meetings for a good chunk of the summer doesn’t exactly replicate the player-led workouts that would mark a normal offseason.
But COVID-19 afforded Georgia’s vaunted defense ample opportunity to review last season and absorb its strengths and flaws through a different, more focused lens. Then when the NCAA began allowing walk-throughs and film study in mid-July, defensive coordinator Dan Lanning’s group was able to harness all that knowledge and apply it outside the throes of a full-fledged, max-intensity fall camp practice.
“Our mental prep is definitely ahead of the curve,” Lanning said.
The main takeaway? That was then, this is now.
“That was 2019. This is 2020. It really has no correlation,” said Lanning, entering his third season in Athens and second overseeing the defense. “We have to start from scratch. By no means are we the ’85 Bears. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but our guys are doing a good job of accepting the challenge and embracing that.”
The SEC’s top defense in 2019 led the nation in scoring defense and stopping the run. Its total defense was 3rd nationally.
But for all its successes, Georgia was susceptible to the pass at times (including the SEC Championship against some guy named Joe). The Bulldogs’ pass defense was 31st in FBS.
They also intercepted only 8 passes (tied for 89th nationally) and recovered 16 fumbles (t-59th).
“You can win 90 percent of the play, but the last 10 percent of the play, the wide receiver catches the ball, you didn’t do your job,” Lanning said. “If you don’t get to the quarterback, you might have a great pass rush move, but if you don’t finish on the quarterback, it doesn’t matter. You can fit a gap perfectly, but if you don’t make a tackle or get the ball out, it doesn’t matter.”
Still, with the bulk of last year’s defensive corps back for a wild, coronavirus-impacted 2020 campaign, the Bulldogs sit poised for one of the best defensive outputs in school history.
In part because of that recognition there can be no laurels-resting.
“No one can be perfect,” outside linebacker Azeez Ojulari said. But “we’re still working to be that great defense.”
Ojulari led the Bulldogs with 5.5 sacks as a redshirt freshman last season and is part of a linebacker group that comes back mostly intact. Leading tackler Monty Rice returns. Quay Walker is expected to slide seamlessly into a starting role after earning valuable second-team reps last season.
National No. 1 2019 recruit Nolan Smith is primed for a breakout season, too.
The defensive line will undergo more of a makeover after the departures of Tyler Clark, Michail Carter, Michael Barnett and David Marshall. Jordan Davis is expected to man the nose spot in place of Barnett, and seniors Malik Herring and Devonte Wyatt round out the projected starting 3-man front.
In the secondary, D.J. Daniel and Eric Stokes might be the SEC’s top cornerback duo. Georgia must replace two starting safeties, but Richard LeCounte is a star and Lewis Cine and Major Burns are more than capable.
While snippets of practice highlights do not a complete picture make, Burns (No. 20) made a couple of nifty open-field plays in Georgia’s first fall scrimmage:
Scrimmage 1️⃣ highlights 🏈
(P.S. we play football this month 👀) pic.twitter.com/9KGM11x9PG
— Georgia Football (@GeorgiaFootball) September 3, 2020
“I feel like every DB has made a big jump from what we did last year,” said Mark Webb, who plays Georgia’s linebacker/safety hybrid “Star” position. “(The younger guys) are learning fast. I’m learning with them as I try to teach them. … It’s definitely fun.”
An all-SEC schedule will only further test the Bulldogs’ improvement. Arkansas in the opener Sept. 26 isn’t exactly a typical first-game walk in the park, and Week 2 against Auburn? The Deep South’s Oldest Rivalry hasn’t been played this early in the season since before World War II.
It’s common knowledge in the Peach State by now that Lanning, his staff and players use havoc rate — the total number of tackles for loss, passes defensed (interceptions and breakups) and forced fumbles divided by the total number of plays — as a key performance indicator. It wasn’t where they wanted it to be at times last year.
And while it won’t be easy to make a giant jump against 10 of the best offenses in the country, Lanning says he’s been pleased with the progress to date as the return of football finally approaches.
“We have a bunch of dogs,” Lanning said, “a lot of guys who want the ball in their hands at the end of the game, they want to be on the field on fourth down. There’s a lot of guys who I’d go to war with right now.”