No other SEC team can boast what Georgia can about its defense.
That would be the fact that Georgia is returning 10 starters.
The Bulldogs will certainly hope their defensive experience plays a vital role in competing for an SEC championship this coming season.
Adding to Georgia returning 10 starters is that most players in its front-seven two-deep got game experience a year ago. And for the two-deep defenders who weren’t with the program last season, linebacker Monty Rice, defensive back Deangelo Gibbs and safety Richard LeCounte all enrolled early for spring practice.
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Georgia’s unit ended the 2016 season fourth in the SEC in total defense at 327.5 yards per game. With head coach Kirby Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker in their second season at Georgia, the combination of returning players and scheme familiarity should bode well.
“We have so many guys back,” Smart said. “We have a lot of freshman that played last year on the defensive front. A lot of those guys have good size. I think stamina is important. I'm a big believer in having guys that can turn and chase the ball because there are so many loose plays.”
It is one thing to return a number of starters to a defense given the value of experience. But that doesn’t always correlate to great success on the gridiron.
Georgia, however, has more than experience working in its favor.
- Defensive tackle Trenton Thompson posted five sacks as a sophomore, including three in a Liberty Bowl win over TCU. While shoulder surgery and a related medical issue held Thompson out of the spring, he is expected to be full-go with his teammates in preseason practice. Among those joining Thompson up front will be Julian Rochester, David Marshall, Jonathan Ledbetter and Tyler Clark. Those four players combined for six sacks in 2016.
- The pass-rushing duo of Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy combined for 10 sacks and 15 tackles for loss. While it took three games for the two to get going with some sacks, their totals suffered down the stretch due to run-heavy teams Kentucky, Auburn, Louisiana-Monroe and Georgia Tech. But Bellamy, especially, was disruptive in coverage with a team-high 17 pass deflections. Carter finished second on the team with 13. With every 2016 defensive line contributor coming back, running the ball should be difficult for opponents. That should create more passing plays for Carter and Bellamy to capitalize on.
- Georgia’s top two tacklers in 2016, juniors Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick, have cemented themselves as key defensive leaders. Smith totaled 95 tackles and fits the new-age mold of a sideline-to-sideleine inside linebacker. Smart has repeatedly praised Smith’s work ethic and brought him to Hoover, Alabama for SEC Media Days. Patrick is also a swift-footed linebacker who added seven pass breakups a year ago.
- Losing defensive back Maurice Smith will certainly hurt. Having safety Dominick Sanders back, and healthy, should more than help soften the blow. Sanders played through multiple injuries and still totaled three interceptions. Depending on safety J.R. Reed’s emergence, Aaron Davis, a senior defensive back, could slide into the nickel spot Smith vacated. If this turns out to be the case, one of the most important positions in Smart’s defense will be occupied by one of the smartest players on the entire roster.
With those factors in mind, Georgia will enter the 2017 season looking strong defensively.
“I'm excited about the players we got returning,” Smart said. “We have a lot of competition at a lot of positions and that fires me up. And I think competition is what makes your team better. Being able to integrate these freshmen into things right now is making our total team better, and we'll continue to do that.”