ATHENS - The youth on Georgia's defense was always expected to be an issue this season, but it's manifesting itself in a way that wasn't quite predicted.
Players admit there have been communication issues before plays, leading to some coverage breakdowns, and a big reason the defense has struggled: Georgia ranks last in the SEC in both third-down defense (44.8 percent) and passing defense (277 yards per game.) Much of that can be attributed to the quality of quarterbacks and offenses the team has faced, but the confusion prior to some plays - players waving and yelling at each other - also hasn't helped.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham makes the calls from the sideline, via hand signals, and inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera is in charge of conveying them to the rest of the defense. Herrera is doing his part, teammates say. The issue is that so many of the younger players, especially in the secondary, aren't picking up on the calls.
"Nobody really knows it that much except me, Ramik (Wilson) and some of the guys that have been here," Herrera said. "Some of the guys who haven't played that much probably don't know them. And we get new signals every week, really. So that's a problem too."
Georgia changes the signals each week to prevent opponents from figuring them out. But as Herrera alluded, that compounds the problem for the Bulldogs.
"Our coaches always get on us about communicating in practice," freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins. "It's different in a game than practice, a game is louder, so we hear most of the calls, and we learn the signals every day. But we just have to do a better job of communicating in the secondary. ....
"Most of the calls we get, we have simple little signals that we call. But just looking at the sideline from the other side of the field is kinda hard, things are moving so fast, offenses run different type of tempos, and things like that. It's just something we have to pay attention to."
Grantham, however, wasn't buying it as an excuse.
"That's bull. Everybody knows the signals, they need to get 'em," Grantham said. "There are certain calls that ... they need to know the call. So I don't know who was saying that but that's part of your youth too, so they need to take it on themselves to get the call."
Secondary coach Scott Lakatos said the players "should" know all the signals, and whether they have the signal or not is "relative." He said the problems are a "combination" of not being in the right spot and not playing right.
But Lakatos agreed that youth was leading to the issues.
"Yup. That's experience," Lakatos said. "That's learning how they're going to get things done, and who's gonna help them, and who they need to turn to when they don't know. 'What do I do now.' That type of thing."
There are three true freshmen starters on defense: Safety Tray Matthews, cornerback Brendan Langley and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd. Two more are getting a lot of playing time in the back: Safety Quincy Mauger and Wiggins. What's more, several others are in their first year as full-time starters and thus new to the calls. One of them, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, admitted he didn't know some of the signals and calls.
"Sometimes they're so far away and everybody is going fast, so the play-call gets called fast and they don't get (the signal) off," Herrera said. "Or they probably don't get it at all."
The specifics of each play call - where to line up, whether there will be a blitz and by who, who needs to cover who, etc. - are vital. Herrera also discounted crowd noise as a factor, saying Georgia relies on hand signals for just that reason.
But sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins indicated that the noise is a factor, whether it's from the crowd or just the heat of battle.
"Trying to echo that across the whole field, sometimes guys are coming back from the previous play and it comes out muffled sometimes," Jenkins said. "I think one time I got a bad call and went to the side on one play, I thought it was a different one."
There were blown coverages on a number of plays last Saturday, allowing LSU big pass plays. Just before some of those plays, defenders could be seen motioning in confusion. Other times it was less obvious beforehand, then evident as the play progressed and a receiver was wide open.
"It's small details. Small details in all the playcalling. It's a lot, and if you miss a small detail it could be a big play," Herrera said. "If you don't get half the call then you don't know some of the stuff that's going on. If you just get the tail end of the call, then you don't know what else you have to do. Because there's a lot of stuff in the call."
Herrera also said that it was easier for last year's defense, where both safeties were seniors and knew the signals. The calls still mostly went through Herrera, or occasionally Jarvis Jones, but so many players were veterans who recognized the signals when Grantham motioned.
So far this year, many players appear dependent on Herrera, and even then may not quite understand what he means.
But Langley said youth can't be an excuse.
"That doesn't have anything to do with youth. We've just gotta know our stuff," Langley said.
So should the calls be simplified?
"There's no way you can make it easier," Herrera said, smiling.
If nothing else, the hope is that the players are a bit closer to mastering the system when they arrive in Tennessee this weekend.
"I feel like I keep saying this over and over again, but that communication aspect is really gonna be huge this week, playing at Knoxville and their loud stadium," Jenkins said. "We have to get guys not only knowing the calls, but just knowing the signals before the call more. Maybe studying some more. I feel like we'll have that problem shortened out a little more this week."