ATHENS, Ga. — Don’t ask Georgia’s defenders about last season. They don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to reflect on it, relive it or rehash it. It’s all a bad dream, one they hope they awoke from months ago.
But as much as the Bulldogs want to put the nightmare behind them, it remains on their minds.
“We don’t want to talk about last year, but those three losses, the way we lost those games, that’s what’s pushing us right now,” said senior cornerback Prince Miller.
The numbers hardly matched the expectations. Georgia allowed 38 or more points five times. The Bulldogs finished 10th in the SEC in sacks. Turnover opportunities slipped through their hands. The discipline was lacking and penalty flags flew at the worst times. Throughout the latter half of the season, opposing runners dashed through the line of scrimmage and picked up huge gains with ease, capped by a disastrous performance against arch rival Georgia Tech, which tallied 409 yards on the ground. By the time Georgia wrapped up its regular season, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez was reviled by a vocal contingent of fans, and head coach Mark Richt was forced to acknowledge the fervent calls for Martinez’s job.
It’s no wonder the Bulldogs want to put those memories behind them.
“Nothing that happened last year is going to help us win games this year, so we’re just worried about focusing on our players and making sure they’re ready to play great defense,” Martinez said.
That’s the standard reply, but the truth is, the lessons of last year’s failures far outweigh the pain of the team’s failures.
The first changes took hold during Georgia’s practice for the Capital One Bowl in December. Richt had scaled back contact during practice all season due to a litany of injuries, but the results on game day had been disastrous. By December, it was back to basics.
“If you don’t practice a certain way, you’re not going to get the mental edge and the physical edge that you need to be a championship football team,” Richt said.
The changes had an immediate impact. A team that couldn’t pressure the opposing quarterback all season racked up six sacks against the Spartans, and after allowing Georgia Tech to run wild in the regular-season finale, the defense held Javon Ringer, one of the nation’s top tailbacks, to just 47 yards in the game.
It was an essential reminder to the numerous players who would return for 2009. The ineptitude against Florida, Kentucky and LSU wasn’t a result of a lack of talent. It was a lack of effort.
“Last year, everybody, knows we were not a disciplined defense,” senior Marcus Washington said. “We had way too many penalties and unforced errors. We need to get all that squared away if we want to be great, and you can’t win games if you’re making mistakes like that.”
From the beginning of the offseason, Georgia’s veterans set out to revamp the attitude of the defense. There would be no room for slip-ups. Discipline on the field had to begin with discipline off it.
The first step was rebuilding the unity last year’s struggles had corrupted.
“We just didn’t bond together as a team (last year). Everybody didn’t pull their weight. We had to come together as a unit and everybody do what it takes to be successful,” safety Reshad Jones said. “This year, it has felt different. We have young talent who has come in and felt comfortable around the older guys. It just seems like a band of brothers. It feels like we’re all in it together.”
Georgia’s seniors held daily meetings, going over film and running through drills during the summer. The veterans immediately embraced the freshmen, and the efforts focused on the things the Bulldogs struggled with the most a year ago.
“We saw what the lack of discipline did to our team last year even with as many talented guys as we had,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “So we realize to make it through this season, leadership and the team concept is going to be what makes us successful and what sets us apart.”
The changes aren’t about recapturing what was lost but re-establishing what Georgia’s defense knows it can be.
The Bulldogs want to put last season behind them, but safety Bryan Evans knows the questions still linger. Simply wanting to move on won’t be enough, he said. They need to prove that 2008 is behind them.
“I think our defense right now wants to prove that we’re still one of the best,” Evans said. “We want to have our coaches back and show everyone that we can and will get the job done this year.”