Mailbag: What should have been expected for this Georgia defense?

semerson@macon.comOctober 16, 2013 

Six games into a disappointing season for Georgia's defense, an alert reader asks the question: How disappointing is it when expectations shouldn't have been that high? So let's delve into that.

Isn't it fair to say that a big "problem" with the Georgia defense was the expectations going into the year? Far too many people seemed to think that it was going to be "addition by subtraction" on the defense now that we got rid of all those pesky all-SEC players and NFL draft picks. Out of our 11 best defensive players this year, only 3 really played meaningful snaps last year. Furthermore, not only is experience an issue, but we're truly lacking any depth outside of the d-line. We play the same 4 linebackers on almost every snap and are really playing only 3 different corners and 3 different safeties. Basically, we have about 14-15 players that the coaches trust on defense.

I don't doubt that Coach Grantham (no relation, I swear) is partly at fault for the poor showing. But I think the Fire Bobo crowd needs to realize that (a) Grantham is not going to be fired, (b) he seems to be a great recruiter, and (c) when UGA is in its 2-4-5 look, we are essentially playing 3 guys who have had any meaningful experience and 3 to 5 freshmen. To grade Grantham on the play of the defense this year is kind of like saying because Murray can't win big games because he didn't light up the scoreboard without our 5 best offensive playmakers.

To me, the bigger causes for the struggles of the 2013 defense are attrition (see, e.g., Auburn's QB) and some whiffs we had in recruiting in 2011 and 2012 which caused us not to sign full classes.
- Bryan Grantham

Bryan, you’re not going to go very far by being all rational, with your facts and perspective and things.

Look, I’ve been critical of some things about Grantham and the defense, and people can read through my stories the past few weeks to see that. But as I pointed out in my Grantham column this week, I was among those in the preseason warning fans that they were getting too optimistic about the defense. Now, I expected it to be a bit better, and the fact there hasn’t been tangible improvement so far this season is discouraging. But some of the criticism is going over the deep end.

Grantham – Todd, not you, Bryan – will come under a bit heavier criticism because of his contract – which isn’t his fault, Georgia agreed to pay him that – and his occasionally blustery attitude. The fiery, chesty attitude made fans love him a couple years ago when things were going great, but it could be counter-productive. I say “could be,” because there’s still time this season for the defense to turn it around, and for Grantham to say it was the outward confidence that did it.

Our safeties including Tray Matthews and corners including Damian Swann are not getting it done at all. How can they consistently give up multiple 20+ yard passing plays in every game? It appears to be a scheme issue to me as they are rarely near the receivers as they catch the ball. Why would you have your best pass rusher, Leonard Floyd, dropping back into coverage so often on obvious passing downs? Clearly we overestimated Swann and Jordan Jenkins, but a bigger question is did we overestimate Todd Grantham?
- Kelvin Phillips, Snellville.

Well, you can’t blame Matthews for the past two games, since he’s been out, but the safeties have been pretty shaky overall. In fact, watching film it’s clear that they’re partially to blame for Swann’s struggles.

I think you’re jumping the gun in saying Swann and Jenkins were overrated. They have proven themselves at this level, and half a season doesn’t negate that. (I’ll have more on the pair’s struggles this season in a story later this week.)

As for Grantham, we shall see. Clearly he was doing something right two years ago when Georgia had the nation’s fifth-ranked defense. That unit did have a ton of future NFL draft picks on it, but Willie Martinez had some future stars too. Now, during Year 4 of Grantham’s tenure, we’re at a point where Martinez and Grantham’s stat rankings and yardage totals are actually pretty comparable. But Grantham has the rest of this season to improve on it.

Grantham didn’t suddenly forget how to coach. However, is the problem on defense that he is more of an X and O NFL style coach than a teacher, which is what is needed in this situation?
- Mark, Jacksonville, Fla

That’s a theory that’s been thrown around and cannot be easily dismissed. You saw hints of a few weeks ago when the young players said they were having trouble with the signals, and Grantham brushing that off with his “that’s bull” comment. But that by itself doesn’t confirm it.

Grantham did have a good point Tuesday, when talking (yet again) about the youth on defense:

“Anytime you’re young – and the thing of it is, it’s not like you’re young with a senior around you. You’re young, and there’s a young guy beside you.”

Grantham laughed as he finished that last part, adding: “It’s like anything, the more work they get, the better they can be.”

Although there were some instances this past weekend of defensive improvement, most notably with the play of Ray Drew and Shaq Wiggins, this is obviously not a championship caliber defense. So my question is about the defensive approach last year and how it may have impacted the defense this year. Specifically, the starting lineup was often kept on the field even during blowouts in the fourth quarter. Were the backups last year really that bad? Or if we had provided them some more game experience last year, would the defense be in a better position this year? Does Mark Richt maybe understand that getting game experience for up and coming players is required in a college program while Grantham may not have the same sensitivity after being in the pros for so long?
- Phil L, Hudson, Ohio

This is also a fair point. Philosophically, this staff just isn’t crazy about subbing a lot, other than the defensive line. And that only changed after last season.

But I don’t think it’s a matter of philosophically being opposed to subbing at all. It’s just when you have Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Bacarri Rambo, Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings, John Jenkins … do you really want to take them out? No, you want to force a three-and-out and get off the field.

Also, the defense allows for subbing in the sense that it has different packages. For instance, when they switch from base to nickel, someone’s coming out. Leonard Floyd has become a third-down pass-rusher lately, so he’s not playing every day. So there is rotating, just not a tremendous amount.

Do you see any chance that Swann will move back to Star and Josh Harvey-Clemons will move to SS in the nickel? This would allow Dawson to get onto the field and allow us to run more man coverage.
- Mac Jones

My sense is that will not happen, because so much of Grantham’s plan this year was built around Harvey-Clemons at the star. Grantham was asked Tuesday night if he could play Harvey-Clemons at strong safety in the nickel defense – opening up the star for someone like Swann – and here was his answer: “Yeah he could do that. You could do that if you felt like you wanted to,or had to, of whatever. You just have to give him some reps at it.” So that wouldn’t indicate it was the offing. Then again, when I asked Grantham before the Clemson game if they were thinking about Leonard Floyd at the star, he said no, and then Floyd played the star against Clemson.

What's up with Kennar Johnson and Shaq Fluker? Junior college transfers are supposed to be ready to play, but I don't think either of these guys has seen the field, despite the poor play of most of the other defensive backs. Did the coaches misjudge them during the recruiting process?
- Stuart Lavietes

It’s an interesting development in the secondary, that’s for sure. Johnson wasn’t expected to play too much right away, but much more was expected of Fluker. Some people thought he could start at strong safety. Instead they’re going to pursue a redshirt – which apparently will have to be a medical redshirt, because he played against North Texas, according to the participation chart. (Fluker has been listed on the injury report as having an illness for several weeks now.)

Fluker was dinged up a bit in the preseason, which set him back a bit. But I’m sure if the coaches felt he could make a difference back there – and obviously they need the help – they would wait out this illness. Instead, the fact they’ve decided on a redshirt already means they just feel the other guys are better. But the fact they’re going to try to save a season of eligibility for Fluker means they still see something in him.

I didn't see much after the first quarter Saturday but from what I saw, the play of Wiggins showed promise. Did that carry on throughout the whole game and if so do you correlate the success to the matchup or a sign of him gaining confidence and experience?
- Kevin Williams

Well, I only normally accept questions from people who saw the WHOLE game, but … Yes, Wiggins played pretty well. He was the one guy back there who seemed to play aggressive. So he’ll continue to play.

It reminds me of what Abraham Lincoln said about General Grant, and why he liked him: “He fights.”

(I challenge you to find Civil War references in other mailbags today.)

Are other SEC teams plagued with ACL and hamstring injuries or can this be attributed to conditioning or preparation in any way?
- Edsel Davis

I think it's bad luck. Richt was asked this week about it, and said he didn't think the ACLs had anything to do with conditioning. As for hamstrings, there is some conditioning impact, but he says they didn't change anything from last year in conditioning, and didn't have as many.

Florida has had an even worse run of injuries than Georgia, by the way. Sometimes, stuff just happens.

I have watch the defensive backs for the last three weeks and confirmed with a followup on TV the next day. Why don't we jamm the recievers on the line of scrimmage as other teams do?
- AJ Serotta, Augusta

That's something that is always emphasized, a couple defensive backs told me this week, it's just a matter of doing it. It's probably another part of the problem that can be chalked up to inexperience.

1-This may be the only comment you get not blaming the defense – and they were a key part of the loss. But in my opinion, this was a total team loss. Offense – coming out in a conservative two tight-end set, killer turnovers, dropped passes. Defense – 2nd quarter no-shows, killer personal foul penalties at the worst times, no turnovers. Special teams – no punting distance. It seems that every phase of the game was lacking. In your opinion, could the team and coaches have been overly concerned with who wasn’t there, perhaps pressing to make up for it?

2-I noticed in the post-game comments that Douglas was asked about his fumble. Yet I didn’t see any comment from Conley about his dropped 2pt conversion. Was he asked? If not, is there a reason this question wouldn’t be asked? It was a huge play – being tied could have changed the complexion of the game.
- Bob Ho, Tucker

1-It’s always possible that people were pressing. Everyone was obviously aware of it. But that doesn’t account for the defense. The special teams wasn’t actually that big a factor in the game, other than the two short punts, which was a negligible factor when you consider the defense was struggling, and Missouri might have gained that yardage anyway. Offensively, everyone agrees the line struggled, having its worst performance since the Clemson game.

2-Conley may have been asked about the two-point conversion drop, but not while I was around him, and the coaches weren’t in my presence either. I disagree it had that big an effect: Yes it would have tied it, but when Missouri missed the extra point, it still left it a one-score game. If events had played out differently, it would have been worth asking Conley about, but it didn’t end up mattering much. Plus, Conley had a good game otherwise, in fact catching the touchdown that led to the two-point try.

Why haven't they had Gurley in uniform instead of street clothes on sidelines as a distraction?
- Joe Ryan

That’s something no one has asked, but I suspect I’d know the explanation(s). For one, at home you have to dress literally only who you have active, so dressing Gurley takes a roster spot. Of course, at Tennessee they did travel Gurley, but did not dress him. Why not? Again, I haven’t asked, but my sense would be that this staff feels OK about messing with an opponent’s preparation by being vague about injuries and suspensions. But once game time is at hand, they don’t

Appreciate the job you do covering the Dawgs. You briefly mentioned this in one of the game recaps, but could you elaborate on the seeming absence of an impact from Jordan Jenkins this season. Like most of the talk surrounding incoming running backs and the inevitable Herschel comparisons, the preseason hype was probably too lofty with all the comparisons to Jarvis Jones. That being said, what is the feeling amongst the coaching staff about his performance thus far? Is there a rhyme or reason for his lack of production?
- Seth Saunders

Hi Seth. This is Seth. I spoke to Jenkins after Tuesday’s practice, and have also asked Grantham and Richt about it. There will be a story later this week.

What happened to the front 5 on Saturday? They did not appear to protect their QB very well.
-Claire Shepard, Milledgeville

Indeed they did not, especially the tackles. These smaller, quicker bull-rushers have given Georgia problems this year, as Richt pointed out this week. But in a larger sense it gets back to what I’ve said for awhile: You don’t know for sure what you’re going to get out of this line every week. It could be great. It could be bad. Most of this season it’s been good. But when it’s been bad, Georgia has lost.

Richt and Grantham are usually on the sideline during games while Bobo prefers to be in the booth upstairs, but what about the other coaches? And is it just a matter of preference or is there some greater rhyme or reason as far as which coaches are on the sideline(or upstairs)?
- Dallas Smith

In the booth: Bobo, receivers coach Tony Ball, inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti, secondary coach Scott Lakatos. On the field: Grantham, defensive line coach Chris Wilson, offensive line coach Will Friend, running backs coach Bryan McClendon.

The answer to your question, Dallas, is that it’s both personal preference and a rhyme or reason. Generally you want a couple coaches from either side of the ball in the booth, because it gives you a different, and often better, view of what’s going on. So the coaches then decide who most needs to be on the field. Both line coaches would prefer to be able to be in their player’s faces, for instance.(But every coach can get on the phone, and meet their players at halftime.)

If you’ll recall, a few years ago Bobo decided to move up into the booth, feeling it gives him a better feel. The results have been better since then, though whether Bobo would attribute that to being in the booth, I’m not sure. Actually, maybe I’ll ask him!

Tough week. Hope your baby slept better than I did Saturday night. Okay, time for us to tap into your rather large brain for a double dose of reality and encouragement, if warranted. It was a tough loss that we could have won. Suddenly the sports writing consciousness is way off the UGA bandwagon and way on the Mizzou or Carolina train. Gloom, despair and agony on me (name that show). Despite the gaffes in the secondary I see reason for a degree of optimism with the return of Gurley, coupled with JHC and Leonard Floyd bringing the wood on D. Does UGA's season look as bad as the ESPN pontificators make it out to be? What can you tell us from the beat writer's vantage point?
Paul Sparrow, Mt. Pleasant, SC

I haven’t seen what everyone on ESPN has said, but any writing off you see of Georgia is probably twofold: The Bulldogs dropping out of the national title race, and the offensive injuries taking Gurley and Murray out of Heisman consideration. Frankly, that’s fair.

But Georgia still has the type of schedule where it can hope to run the table and win the SEC championship, and crack a BCS bowl. That’s on the table, and if the Bulldogs get back on track and string together more wins, you’ll see people saying that.

Any chance we get a "Letter to Erk" video at the next home game?
- Mark, Boise

Someone would have to write it first. I’ll ask Loren next time I pass his office.

I'll be a first time visitor to Nashville this weekend, and I couldn't be more excited to explore the city and cheer on the Dawgs.

What are some of your favorite restaurants near the stadium? Where is the best place to tailgate? Anything else I should know?

Thanks for all the great coverage!
- Megan, Peachtree City

Megan, the best advice I can offer is to hit Broadway, and walk up and down the block. But I'm doing a Q&A with the Vanderbilt writer for The Tennessean, the paper in Nashville, so I'll ask him for a few suggestions.

For more discussion on Georgia football, and the game at Vanderbilt, please join Seth Emerson's live chat Friday at noon, on the blog.

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