ATHENS -- Georgia defensive lineman Sterling Bailey didn’t hide his discomfort when the subject of Rodney Garner came up. Bailey had no interest in comparing his former position coach to his new one, Chris Wilson.
“I’d rather not say,” Bailey said. “I don’t want to cause any drama or anything.”
It actually shouldn’t be a source of drama. Garner’s move from Georgia after 13 years to Auburn this year appears to be working out for everybody.
Georgia’s defensive line has improved. So has Auburn’s.
Garner is happy to be back at his alma mater. Georgia doesn’t feel spurned and instead is happy with his replacement, Wilson.
“I know what he had to do what’s best for him and his family, because it’s nothing more than a business,” Georgia junior end Ray Drew said. “So there’s no hard feelings there at all.”
Garner, who was not made available for interviews this week, was the Bulldogs’ longest-serving assistant, arriving at Georgia even before head coach Mark Richt. Garner was also the recruiting coordinator for years, so he had an impact on more than just the defensive linemen. He also hosted a yearly Thanksgiving feast at his house that became legendary.
But Garner felt the pull of his alma mater when Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn came calling in December as Georgia prepared for its bowl. Richt sensed it was time to let Garner move on.
“I kind of got the feeling from the very beginning that this was going to be it,” Richt said. “He may not have said it right away, but I had a pretty strong suspicion that he was very attracted to them this time around. He’s had some other opportunities to go back home or back to Auburn, but this time I think just had a different overall tone to it.”
Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham went about finding a replacement. A month later, they landed on Wilson, who had been demoted from defensive coordinator at Mississippi State but was very well regarded as a defensive line coach.
So far it’s proving to be a good choice. So is Garner for Auburn.
Georgia’s rush defense ranks fourth in the SEC this year and is yielding 3.4 yards per carry. Last year, with four players who made NFL opening day rosters, the Bulldogs ranked 12th in the conference in run defense and yielded 4.1 yards per carry.
This year’s Georgia run defense has been solid, although stout would be going too far. The sack numbers do a lot to bring the average rushing yards down. Without sacks counting, Georgia is allowing 4.3 yards per rush. Taking sacks out of last year’s total, the yards-per-rush average goes up to 4.7.
“We’ve got so many things where we can clean up,” Wilson said. “We’re solid. We need to get to the point where we can be dominant.”
Under Garner this year, Auburn ranks ninth in run defense and is yielding 4.2 yards per carry. But both of those are improvements, as last year’s run defense was last in the SEC, allowing 4.9 yards per carry.
“I think (Wilson) has done a great job since he’s been here. I think Rodney did a great job when he was here,” Grantham said. “Both guys are good coaches, and I think both of them have got a bright future ahead of them.”
There have been two big changes for Georgia’s defensive line this year. Both have Wilson’s imprints, but those changes might have happened under Garner anyway.
Georgia is subbing liberally along the line, rotating in six to eight players per game. Last year, the unit struggled in the second half of many games after keeping its starters on the field most of the time.
The second change is the new players: Bailey, a sophomore, and Drew are two veterans who have seen a huge increase in snaps. And they’ve flourished, with Drew leading the team in sacks.
But there seems to be general agreement that if Garner had stayed, he would have taken the same course with subbing and using different players with the lack of returning starters.
“I believe it was just a matter of time, whether Garner was still here or Wilson had come in,” Drew said.
Plus, that’s what Garner is doing this year at Auburn. As many as 12 linemen have gone in during games. It seems to have had the desired effect, as there have been six games in which Auburn has shut out its opponent in the fourth quarter.
Georgia’s run defense has held up late, too, coming up with a big stop to seal the win over South Carolina.
The more subtle change might be in style. Garner was known for his tougher, blunt approach, while Wilson seems to have a softer side. Bailey, who said he hasn’t spoken to Garner lately, is one player who seems to have benefitted from a fresh start.
Still, most people said the difference between Garner and Wilson is a small one.
“It’s hard to say who was more demanding. It’s at times both,” Drew said. “You have your run-ins with both of them. And both of them have their days where you just want to say, ‘OK, that’s it, I’ve had it, shut up.’ You look back at it, and there were some days that me and Coach Garner didn’t see eye-to-eye, and there have been days where me and Coach Wilson don’t see eye-to-eye. But at the end, you know that it’s all going to come together for the good of the team.”
Wilson and Garner actually know each other on a professional basis. They met about a decade ago, when Wilson was an assistant at Oklahoma, and that staff visited Georgia.
“I think the world of him. He’s a good man,” Wilson said. “Rodney did a great job, as well as Georgia brought in some really good players. Not only good players, but good men, good young men. So I’m really fortunate in that regard.”