I’ve made little secret that I think Georgia’s chances to excel this season depend more than anything else on the return of the defense to pre-2006 standards. How realistic is it for us to hope for that level of play? That depends on where we can expect improvement to come from.
One area typically pointed to is players moving up the learning curve in the change from the 4-3 defense which Martinez ran to Grantham’s 3-4 scheme.
The Bulldogs will continue preparations for their second season in coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense.
“The second year, the second spring it was like light years ahead of where we were the spring before that,” defensive line coach Rodney Garner said.
“The goal is hopefully these guys are going to pick up this fall camp where we left off in the spring. If they do that, I think you’re going to see a tremendous amount of growth defensively overall.”
I mentioned yesterday that scheme isn’t everything in defending what an offense does, but there’s necessarily a transitional cost in implementation. Players unsure of what they’re doing in a new scheme don’t play as fast as those who are certain.
Another reason we might expect improvement is because the staff has presumably signed talent that is more suited to run the new scheme than some of the players they inherited. That not only allows the coaches to start more players who aren’t square pegs placed in round holes, but also to develop depth.
DeAngelo Tyson believes he has finally found his comfort zone at defensive end after filling in at nose last year for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham.
Credit the arrival of Johnathan Jenkins and the spring emergence of Kwame Geathers for that.
“I was excited (about the move to DE), but last year we lost three seniors so it’s all about depth if you want to have a good defensive line,” Tyson said recently. “Adding him (Jenkins) to our depth is a good thing. Everybody talks about the nose. To me, it’s all about depth.”
Depth on the defensive line, in particular.
… Coaches like Arkansas’ Bobby Petrino, who has coached at every level in various leagues and conferences, said it’s not about the coaches or the quarterbacks, it’s about the defensive line.
“The thing that separated the SEC from everybody else in America was the defensive front, the speed, athleticism on the edges, athleticism inside,” Petrino said at SEC Media Days in Birmingham. “I found that out when I came back as a head coach in the league.”
Coaches like Florida’s Will Muschamp, who spent a few years coaching in the not-so-shabby Big 12, said on film, the D-line is the clear difference. In other conferences, there might be two or three teams that dominate the line of scrimmage, but not in the SEC, he said.
“Top to bottom in our league — you watch every week when you turn on an SEC film — there’s going to be some dominating players up front, not just in one or two teams, but from top to bottom in our league,” he said. “That’s the biggest difference in our league and other leagues.”
All that’s great in the abstract. But are there any real world examples to point to in order to decide if there’s any validity to it?
Well, the comparison that jumps to mind – especially after the signing of Big John Jenkins – is that of Alabama’s defense in Saban’s second season. Saban, if you’ll recall, was hired before the 2007 season and promptly installed a 3-4 defensive scheme. Most observers will tell you that he faced similar problems to those Grantham faced, particularly with regard to personnel. Saban was able to address some of those deficiencies in his next recruiting class, particularly with Terrence Cody. Alabama made a huge leap defensively in the 2008 season and went on a run that didn’t end until the SECCG.
Here’s a handy chart I’ve made for comparison purposes (national and conference rankings in parentheses) of key defensive stats from Georgia’s last season and Saban’s first two seasons at ‘Bama:
Note three things in particular from that chart. First, statistically speaking, there isn’t much difference between the numbers from Grantham’s defense last year and Saban’s 2007 results. Georgia’s defense against the pass was somewhat better than Alabama’s, the Tide were tougher defending the run than were the Dawgs, but overall, it’s pretty close in scoring and total yardage. Second, while ‘Bama pretty much improved across the board, the gains were more pronounced stopping the run than they were against the pass. And third, the one area that didn’t improve from one year to the next was plays behind the line of scrimmage. In fact, the Alabama defense actually declined in the number of sacks and tackles for loss it caused.
The bottom line, though, was impressive. Alabama shaved more than a touchdown per game off of its defensive scoring line.
Looking back, it’s not like anybody expected great things from that defense. It only returned five starters from 2007. Here’s a sample of conventional wisdom from the preseason:
What you need to know: The defense was solid last season and was all set to take another step forward this year until the linebacking corps took a hit. Ezekial Knight was forced to quit football thanks to a heart condition, Jimmy Johns was booted for allegedly selling cocaine, and Prince Hall was suspended for violating team rules. Fortunately, Rolondo McClain is back while the recruiting class should bring in instant help from Jerrell Harris and Courtney Upshaw. The line in the 3-4 is fine, but nothing special without Wallace Gilberry and his 10 sacks and 27 tackles for loss. A pass rusher has to emerge. FS Rashad Johnson leads a fast secondary that’ll get a boost from freshmen Mark Barron and Alonzo Lawrence.
Things turned out a little better than that, eh?
One thing about that defense – as this Phil Steele chart shows, from a starting players standpoint, it was quite stable over the course of the season. That meant that Saban was both a shrewd evaluator of talent (every player who started against Clemson finished as a starter against Auburn) and a little lucky (those starters only missed starting a total of four games all year).
Of course what worked in Tuscaloosa three seasons ago isn’t any sort of guarantee of success in Athens in 2011 and I’m not offering the data as such. But what it does mean is that we’re not crazy to anticipate that it could happen. The program has recruited well. Grantham is paid an élite salary; with that comes élite expectations. Barring a rash of injuries, it’s not unreasonable to expect rosier times for the Georgia defense. We’ll soon see if we’re rewarded for that.