Guerry Clegg commentary: Georgia's defense nearly starting from scratch

March 5, 2013 

Todd Grantham brought a new scheme, new attitude, new intensity and new credibility to Georgia when Mark Richt hired him from the Dallas Cowboys to run his defense.

But after two seasons of measured improvement, there are now renewed concerns about the status of the Bulldogs' defense.

And, by extension, concerns about Grantham himself.

In fairness, Grantham has not been blessed with an abundance of continuity. This spring, Grantham began his third rebuilding job in four years. The first year, his alibi was understandable: It would take time for Georgia's defensive players to learn an entirely new scheme. The defense improved in virtually every category, but at least some of that was owed to how bad they were before Grantham's arrival.

In Year 2, the scheme wasn't new, but many of the players were. They improved from seventh to fourth in the SEC in points allowed and from fourth to third in yards allowed, behind only Alabama and LSU. There were spurts of excellence, such as holding LSU to no first downs in the entire first half of the SEC Championship Game.

Year 3, everything was in place for Georgia's defense to become an elite group. At least eight players from last season's defense will have their names called next month in the NFL draft, with four others having realistic hopes of signing as free agents. That itself would seem to speak favorably for Grantham. Yet, there was an inexplicable disconnect between talent and performance. A defense with all of that NFL talent was conspicuously mediocre -- and in some aspects subpar. The Dogs finished sixth in total yards allowed, sixth in points allowed and 12th against the run.

When Alabama emerged from the locker room to start the third quarter of the SEC Championship Game, Crimson Tide coach Nick Saban made no secret about his second-half game plan.

"We're going to have to run the football," Saban said.

And run it they did -- 28 times for 288 yards in the second half. Lost in the frantic finish in which Georgia's offense ran out of time against Alabama has been the fact that the Dogs' defense could not hold a 21-10 lead over the final 21 minutes.

Certainly no Dogs fans are calling for the return of Willie Martinez, or even Brian VanGorder, whose stock nose-dived last fall after that dismal season at Auburn. And Grantham's animated sideline demeanor is a healthy counter balance to Richt's exceeding calm, such as when Grantham pierced Devin Bowman's eardrums after a potentially costly penalty against Florida.

But there's too much defensive talent at Georgia, even with all of those losses, to reconcile the missed tackles and busted assignments.

Year 4 more closely resembles Year 2 than the others. Grantham is not completely starting from scratch, but it's close to it. There are enough

returning players who know the system who can lead the new ones. But they will be overly reliant on inexperienced players trying to learn the system as well as adapt the speed of SEC football.

This time last year Jordan Jenkins was learning from Jarvis Jones. Now, he's one of the more seasoned players on defense -- and he won't even turn 19 until July. Starting jobs could be won at four positions -- nose tackle, middle linebacker, cornerback and strong safety -- by players who have never played a single snap of Division I football.

Several other freshmen and sophomores will push for substantial playing time.

The so-called Dream Team class of 2011 is preparing for its third season. Some of its members -- notably defensive linemen Ray Drew and Sterling Bailey, safety Corey Moore and linebacker Ramik Wilson -- have yet to prove themselves worthy of their hype.

Same can be said for nose tackle Mike Thornton and linebacker T.J. Stripling, who were in the previous signing class.

All of them were four- and five-star recruits. All were signed under Grantham's regime. All of them could be standing on the sidelines watching freshmen and sophomores play this fall.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. Write to him at sports@ledger-enquirer.com.

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