Why I'm less worried about Georgia's revamped secondary preventing a Playoff run
With each day that we move closer to that mammoth Clemson-Georgia showdown in Charlotte to kick off the 2021 season, I find my early 2021 concerns about the inexperienced Georgia secondary are fading. When someone suggests that Georgia will win a national championship and end the 1980 jokes, I no longer have the knee-jerk reaction of “oh yeah? Well, how do they replace Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell, Richard LeCounte, Tyrique Stevenson, DJ Daniel and Mark Webb?”
That answer is a couple of things. It’s a bit wordy. It’s also, dare I say, a bit stale.
Georgia’s secondary is indeed the Achilles’ heel heading into 2021. Even the addition of versatile West Virginia transfer Tykee Smith didn’t totally change that (more thoughts on that in a bit).
So why then does the massive turnover not seem like such a potential title deterrent like it did when the UGA hype train left the station back in January?
A few reasons.
Let’s start with one of the most overlooked parts of Alabama’s unblemished 2020 season. Remember how Alabama had household names galore in that secondary? Patrick Surtain was a top-10 pick, Malachi Moore was a freshman All-American, Josh Jobe is getting all the way-too-early 2022 NFL Mock Draft love, etc.
Now what if I told you that Alabama was ranked No. 70 in FBS against the pass? Now what if I also told you that when Nick Saban’s secondary faced Florida, Texas A&M and Ole Miss, it allowed an average of 374 passing yards on 9.7 yards per attempt?
Sure, the vast majority of that came with Alabama protecting a multi-touchdown lead, but that’s what Georgia is trying to build. That should serve as a reminder that even a secondary loaded with NFL talent with an all-time defensive mastermind on the sidelines, you can overcome mistakes on the back end with the way offense is played. Now that Georgia insists on playing offense that way — and it has the pieces in place to do so — it can have a similar identity.
Just so you don’t think that was a one-off, look at 2019 LSU. A historically dominant offense? Sure. A somewhat mediocre passing defense? For the most part, yeah. Against Alabama, Florida and Texas, LSU allowed an average of 379 passing yards and 4 passing touchdowns. That was with 2 second-round defensive backs and freshman All-American Derek Stingley.
Granted, 2019 LSU and 2020 Alabama both cranked up the pressure by Playoff time, and the secondary played lights out when it needed to.
Can Georgia follow a similar path to success? It’s certainly possible. Even if Kelee Ringo shows flashes of 2019 Stingley and Smith is a bit of the interchangeable 2020 role that Jordan Battle played, odds are, Clemson and Florida are going to have success throwing the ball against Georgia. That’s life in 2021.
Life in 2021 would’ve been a bit easier on the secondary had Azeez Ojulari decided to stick around and terrorize backfields for another season. That, however, was more pipe dream than reality. Even with Ojulari gone, Georgia’s ability to rush the passer shouldn’t be lacking.
Pro Football Focus actually had Adam Anderson with a better pass-rushing grade than Ojulari for best in the SEC, though he didn’t meet the snap minimum at just 130 plays. He still managed to finish second on the team with 24 pressures and 6.5 sacks. When Anderson gotpl a season-high 19 snaps against Cincinnati in the Peach Bowl, he had 2 sacks and a key fumble recovery.
Azeez Ojulari played 375 snaps last season. Adam Anderson has 337 snaps in 3 years. He’s proven to be highly productive in his limited time. On 196 career pass rush snaps:
90.9 pass rush grade
51 total QB pressures
24.5% pass rush win rate (#3 in Power 5 in that time frame) https://t.co/8UMN01Hxgs
— Brent Rollins (@PFF_Brent) May 12, 2021
There’s also loads of potential with Nolan Smith and Travon Walker, both of whom are former 5-star recruits entering their pre-draft seasons. Nakobe Dean is another class of 2019 blue-chipper who is expected to be one of the SEC’s breakout stars at middle linebacker. He graded out as the No. 6 pass-rusher among all SEC inside linebackers a year ago.
Georgia doesn’t necessarily have a Christian Barmore-type interior defender to rush the passer, but former 5-star Jalen Carter showed major upside in that department as a true freshman, especially in the bowl game wherein he had 3 pressures. Even if Jordan Davis doesn’t develop into a more high-volume guy the way Kirby Smart wants him to, he’s still a space-eater lining up on the nose.
All of this is worth mentioning because Georgia’s secondary is going to need some help. It needs rushed throws. It needs a front 7 that can get home with a 4-man rush. Smart’s defense has the ingredients to do that. Even with the loss of Ojulari, you could make the case that there’s more pass-rushing upside and depth with this year’s front 7 than last year’s.
And yes, in case you haven’t seen, the Smith addition is huge. He might not necessarily cover all of those areas of weakness, but PFF graded Smith better in coverage than any FBS safety in 2020. With so many SEC offenses now lining up their elite receivers in the slot, Smith is going to excel at making sure they don’t take over.
One of the biggest transfer moves this off-season has been Tykee Smith transferring to the Georgia Bulldogs.
Smith career stats
— GaBulldogsFB (@GABulldogsFB) May 8, 2021
Starting safeties Lewis Cine and Christopher Smith might’ve seen the words “Georgia adds highly regarded West Virginia safety” and groaned, but playing the “Star” position in Smart’s defense is more of hybrid, complimentary role. That’s a similar position to the “Spear” role he thrived in at West Virginia. If anything, Cine and Christopher Smith are going to benefit from the presence of their new teammate.
Admittedly, my initial reaction to Tykee Smith’s transfer last month wasn’t “Georgia’s secondary is fine now.” It still would be a surprise if UGA — with the inexperience at corner and the likely scenario that offenses will be forced to throw to stay with the high-octane offense — somehow finished as a top-30 pass defense.
It’s easy to forget that last year’s unit only finished No. 88. Quietly, Smart’s passing defense has gotten worse every year since it finished No. 8 in the national runner-up season in 2017. All of those teams still managed top-7 finishes in the AP Poll.
Would a path to a national title be much easier if Georgia didn’t get gashed by elite passing offenses? Sure. But we’re starting to see that if there’s an area where a contender can get away with being less than perfect, it’s defending the pass. There might not be a gap between that and what Georgia could be with that increased pass-rush help and the addition of Tykee Smith.
Even if Georgia gets lit up for 400 passing yards by D.J. Uiagalelei in the season opener, that could still prove to be true. Smart doesn’t need this to be his best secondary in order to reach the top of the college football mountain. He said after Georgia’s spring game that he doesn’t have any fear about his secondary.
Dare I say, I’m starting to come around to that mindset, too.