I’ve touched on this subject here and there, but if you’re looking for an excellent, comprehensive take on Smart’s defensive scheme and how it’s changed over the years, Graham’s post is a must read.
If you want the tl;dr version it’s simple. Blame the spread.
Smart mentions that the coaches get weight reports on their players two times a week. In the summer of 2018, Jordan Davis went from 347 pounds to 320 in about two-and-a-half months. “Heavy guys don’t play for us. We need guys that can line up, play fast, be active, and run in space.”
Smart mentions the 2014 CFP Semifinal between Ohio State and Alabama. The Crimson Tide started three lineman over 300 pounds in that game. After OSU put up 42 points on Alabama, Smart went and met with his counterpart in that game, Tom Herman. The Buckeyes didn’t even try to block Alabama inside. They ran the ball sideline to sideline in an effort to wear out the bigger Alabama defenders and negate OSU’s size advantage. All of those body blows eventually resulted in a knock out punch when OSU running back Ezekiel Elliott busted through the line for an 85-yard touchdown run that put the game out of reach. The big Alabama lineman were too tired by that point in the fourth quarter to keep contain.
Smart’s defense to that point had been based on the opponent’s personnel. If an opposing coordinator felt they had more of an advantage against Alabama’s four-man front than their three-man front they could just stay in certain personnel packages. Smart saw that as a problem.
In his three-man fronts, Smart needed bigger linebackers because they would have to take on the guards on every play. In the SEC, guards are often 300 pounds or more. The problem? Those big linebackers also had to go cover in space. Smart puts it bluntly. “You’re not gonna cover Alvin Kamara with a 250 pound linebacker.”
The spread was stressing Smart’s defenses. The solution the? Georgia’s MINT front.
For the most part, that has served him well. But not perfectly well, as last season’s games against Alabama and Florida demonstrated. The latest stress test comes from teams that can deploy four and five legitimate receiving options on any given play.
By now, Georgia has adapted its defense plenty, and I’m sure we will see further tweaks after a full offseason and the addition of Will Muschamp to the staff. The high powered passing attacks has created the need for more packages that deploy five and six defensive backs, but the Mint Front is still a huge part of UGA’s base defense.
Last season, Georgia missed having a Roquan Smith-type middle linebacker who was versatile enough to contribute in pass coverage. (Remember Monty Rice trying to stay with Jalen Waddle on that completion down the middle? Or Florida’s repeated success with the wheel route?) That’s why, regardless of who was staying or going, Smart was focused on bringing in some portal talent to shore up depth in the defensive backfield, because he recognized that he needed more contributors in pass coverage.
That’s also why, despite all the talk about Jordan Davis, Adam Anderson or other returning players on defense, the player on that side of the ball who will likely be Georgia’s key is Tykee Smith.