When media members were allowed to watch a good portion of Georgia’s first practice Thursday, most congregated toward the areas where the defensive players were doing drills. That’s the intrigue in this year’s August camp for the Bulldogs, so that’s what everyone wanted to see.
What’s really the fun in watching this offense -- at least for now? Georgia has a senior starting quarterback in Aaron Murray ready to start for his fourth year. The entire starting offensive line is back. The duo of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall is perhaps the best running back combination in college football. There is more depth than ever at wide receiver, and tight end Arthur Lynch was just named preseason first-team All-SEC at his position.
But the Georgia defense? Well, it lost 12 players who started at least two games last season. All 12 of those players either were drafted or signed NFL free agent contracts in April. And of the players on this year’s roster, only eight started at least one game last season, and half of those eight players started either one or two games. Only one player (Damian Swann) started all 14 games last season.
And that’s why there is skepticism about this year’s Georgia defense. But when I watched practice Thursday, there seemed to be more “playable” players on the field than in years past. It felt like I was in Tuscaloosa, watching a Nick Saban defense that had a lot of players who looked ready to contribute.
Of course, it’s early August. A lot of things can change this month before Georgia opens up in Clemson on Aug. 31. But while the experience is not there, the talent seems to be.
Five of the new defensive players played at a junior college or prep school last season, and then four other newbies enrolled early and participated in spring practice. That helps a great deal lead you to believe the defense is not as raw as people might imagine.
Chris Mayes and Toby Johnson are two players who could get playing time on the defensive line, while Kennar Johnson and Shaquille Fluker are certain to get snaps in a rebuilt secondary. And we’ve heard for six months about how Tray Matthews, a freshman from Newnan, came into spring practice and practically won the starting free safety job.
When you see these players on the field they look like, here is that word again playable players. Might this be the most inexperienced and yet perhaps the deepest defense Georgia has had in several years?
Sophomore Jordan Jenkins, who started six games last season in his first year in Athens, takes over for Jarvis Jones and will be a team leader. Jenkins knows other teams might underestimate the young talent on defense.
“They haven’t seen some of the guys we’ve got play,” Jenkins said. “All they’ve seen is high school film. In the two or three months they’ve been up here, they’ve changed a lot since their high school days. They haven’t seen the defense. We’ve lost a lot of guys. They haven’t seen what our young guys are capable of doing. That’s what’s going to shock them when we get out there this season.”
Murray said that this offseason most people actually have asked him about the defense. A year ago, he was being asked about an offense that had new running backs and had to replace three offensive linemen and the starting tight end. That turned out pretty well, as the Bulldogs averaged almost 38 points per game.
“I think the defense is the same way,” Murray said. “They got better and better every spring practice. I think they looked awesome this summer. They’re ready to continue to get better this camp. So I look forward to them having a great year.
“I definitely think everyone is going to be surprised.”
The only question is how long it will take the defense to take shape. Will the new players get it in August and be ready to stop Clemson in week one, or will it take a few weeks or even later into the season to have everything click? With a tough September schedule, the answer could dictate Georgia’s entire season.
“I feel like we’ve jelled pretty well throughout the summer in some of the workouts,” Jenkins said. “As a unit, we’ve got a lot of great guys and great talent. Now we just have to get them understanding more and more of the playbook. They’re far more advanced than I was when I first came. I’m ready to just have everybody up to the knowledge that some of the older guys have. If we can get that before game one, even two weeks before that, we’ll have a good season.”
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