ATHENS, Ga. — By the time Georgia wrapped up its regular season with one of its most embarrassing defensive performances in decades in a 45-42 loss to Georgia Tech, linebacker Rennie Curran wasn’t perplexed by what had transpired. The truth was, he knew all along. There was a missing ingredient, and all the morale-boosting speeches Curran could muster wouldn’t change that.
Curran insists things are different this season. Georgia’s defense has been through the fire, and this time the players are prepared for what lies ahead.
“You can look to your left, look to your right, and you can trust the guy next to you, knowing that he’s been here through the good and the bad experiences and can get the job done,” Curran said.
There have been numerous improvements in terms of preparation and conditioning, a renewed dedication to fundamentals and a chip-on-their-shoulder approach to the season. But the biggest difference for Georgia’s defense this season is simply experience.
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Last season, safety CJ Byrd was the only senior to start all 13 games on defense. Corvey Irvin was the only other senior to earn regular playing time without succumbing to injuries, and he had just transferred from junior college a year earlier. When adversity hit, there were few Bulldogs who knew how to overcome it.
That has all changed in 2009. Ten of the 11 players expected to start Georgia’s opener against Oklahoma State in September are juniors or seniors, and only cornerback Brandon Boykin lacks significant game-day experience.
“We have more leaders on the team, on the defense,” said senior Jeff Owens, who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL during the Bulldogs’ first game. “All great football teams have great leaders, and that’s going to be what defines our season.”
From the time players returned to campus following Georgia’s Capital One Bowl victory in January, the leadership on the defensive side of the ball has been evident.
There was more accountability and organization during offseason workouts. After an injury-ravaged season in 2008, conditioning was at the forefront of the defense’s preparation for this year. When the freshmen arrived at the beginning of the summer, there was no dichotomy between upperclassmen and newcomers. The teaching began immediately.
“I definitely see an improvement in that area,” defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. “Everybody around would say the leadership is like night and day from a year ago.”
Five times in 2008 the Bulldogs allowed 38 or more points, including disastrous performances in losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech.
Turnovers slipped through the hands of cornerbacks. Tackling lacked the fundamentals, and opponents like the Yellow Jackets exploited the weakness to the tune of more than 400 yards rushing. The defensive line failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks, and Georgia fell from first in the SEC in sacks in 2007 to 10th in the conference last year.
“Last year, we had some young guys, and they were going into the learning phase,” defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. “Now, people are older, more mature, and you can see it throughout the whole defense.”