ATHENS -- Mark Richt, the ever-optimistic Georgia head coach, opined this week that his beleaguered defense had “turned a corner.”
Amarlo Herrera, the ever-blunt captain of that defense, offered a retort.
“The corner ain’t big,” Herrera said, with a smile. “We’ve still got a long way to go. Because people are still scoring on us. So when we turn that corner from letting people score on us, then it’ll be a huge corner.”
Still, at least at this point the debate is about how much the defense has improved.
Georgia gave up a season-low 20 points to Florida on Saturday, granted, against statistically the weakest offense the Bulldogs have faced this year.
The past two games, Georgia has yielded an average of 328 yards, way down from the average of 478 yards during the first six games.
“It’s been kind of late,” junior cornerback Damian Swann said. “But we’re still making those strides, to finish the year off strong, and prepare for next year.”
Georgia still ranks dead last in the SEC in scoring defense, at 31.6 points allowed per game. But the Bulldogs have inched up the rankings in total yardage and are now up to seventh in the conference, which before the season that was a reasonable expectation for a young unit.
The problem for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s unit is that as strong as it might finish (if it finishes strong) the first half of the season still leaves an ugly mark.
“Before we knew what we can do, it had started to become too late,” Swann said. “I don’t think guys really realize how great we can be on defense here.”
Grantham, now in his fourth year running the defense, was asked if this season has been his most trying at Georgia.
“Oh, I don’t know,” he said. “There’s been some challenges this year, but part of coaching is trying to figure out the challenge and win the game. The other part of it is trying to figure out how to get guys to play good. And play to their ability. When you see that, that becomes the reward. Being around the guys can be the reward, too. Taking them out for an occasional meal, seeing them outside of football. That part becomes the reward. So you kind of got to do those things, to balance out the challenges you talk about.”
Grantham was told this should have been one of the most fun years -- so many young players and low expectations.
“But then they weren’t (low). So that’s part of it,” Grantham said, smiling. “They never are. You’ve gotta be ready to win. And that’s the bottom line, winning.”
The defense isn’t the only reason Georgia (5-3) has done less of that than expected. The injuries on offense and the special teams mistakes loom large.
Still, the defensive issues have been real. This is certainly the season in which Grantham has come under the most scrutiny from fans and media members, but he claims to shake it off.
“First of all I’m a competitive guy, and I’m going to put more pressure on myself, or more of a standard on myself than anybody could. Whether it’s a fan or anybody,” he said. “And I’m going to want to do things a certain way. And that comes from me.”
Then Grantham said part of coaching is to keep developing. And he points to the South Carolina and LSU games (the second and fourth of the season, respectively), when players stayed in the game despite giving up big plays and in the end made stops.
Grantham used those stops as positive reinforcement for his players going forward. Then came the Tennessee game, the fifth week, when the defense finally started well but then aided in blowing a lead. It took the Volunteers fumbling the ball away in overtime for the Bulldogs to win that game.
Grantham pointed to the difference between the Florida and Tennessee games as a sign for his unit’s maturation.
“We didn’t have the mental maturity to finish the (Tennessee) game off, go put them away,” Grantham said. “This game we did. They had the ball at midfield, and these guys were tired. I thought we were a little bit gassed. But that’s why we preach mental toughness and doing those things. That’s part of coaching. And that’s what they did. They went out and stopped them.”
Now the trick is to keep the improvement going four more weeks.
“We are getting there. It’s not happening as fast as everyone predicted or thought, but we’re gonna get there,” Herrera said.