ATHENS -- By last season’s end, Damian Swann had diagnosed Georgia’s biggest defensive problem.
The Bulldogs struggled to get off the field on third downs. They ranked 66th in the FBS in that department. Georgia also gave up a lot of yards, finishing 45th in the nation in yards allowed per game. And the defense’s 29 points allowed per game put the Bulldogs in the bottom half of the country in that category, as well.
As bad as those numbers might seem, to Swann, those statistics paled in comparison to the issues Georgia had with creating turnovers.
“That’s one of the biggest statistics on the defensive side of the ball is going out there and causing fumbles, catching picks, doing those extra things to give our offense more opportunities than theirs,” he said. “If you create takeaways, that cuts theirs short and gives us more chances.”
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In 2013, Georgia only had 15 defensive takeaways (eight fumble recoveries, seven interceptions), halving the 2012 defense’s turnover success. Those 15 takeaways tied for 109th in the FBS with Kentucky and Utah. The only “power conference” schools with fewer takeaways were Arkansas, California and Illinois.
The harsh regression from 2012 to 2013 was caused by multiple variables. But it was the absence of many of the team’s defensive stars from the year before that had the most influential role.
“It’s not luck. It’s the execution. It’s going out and playing football fast,” Swann said. “In 2012, I played with a lot of veteran guys. A lot of those guys moved on to 2013 where we had a lot of young guys step up into those roles and fill some big shoes. With the mentality and the maturity level of those guys, it was kinda different.”
Those words might bother Georgia supporters because many of the same question marks remain in the 2014 secondary. Of the turnovers that were created last year, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Tray Matthews and Shaq Wiggins -- none of which are still with the program -- played a part in seven of the interceptions or fumble recoveries.
So once again, unknown names and faces will be responsible for fixing the turnover (or lack thereof) problem from a year ago. This time, however, it feels different.
“The communication is better. Guys knowing what to do is a lot better. Noticing formation, noticing the small things has gotten a lot better due to the coaching and due to the preparation of football,” Swann said, before mentioning the biggest change of the entire offseason. “Coach (Jeremy) Pruitt has put us in a great spot to at least go out and compete on Saturday.”
Pruitt hasn’t held back when challenging his team’s ability since he arrived in Athens. While he hasn’t been made available for his previous two media sessions, Pruitt made clear during preseason practice that no one in the secondary other than Swann had played up to his standards. His criteria, however, might be higher than most.
While Georgia stumbled to a mere 15 takeaways, Pruitt’s defense in Tallahassee ranked second in the nation in turnovers gained with 35. And which defense intercepted the most passes? Pruitt’s Seminoles picked off 26.
Many of those new strategies have been implemented since his arrival. And while Pruitt has been relatively mum in recent weeks, head coach Mark Richt made it clear that turnover creation has been at the forefront of the defense’s preparations.
“We’ve got some good ball skills back there. They’re catching the ball pretty good right now. We’re serious about disrupting the ball as far as getting fumbles, punching it out, stripping it out, whatever it may be,” Richt said. “We work really hard on recovering fumbles, whether it’s out in space, scooping it, securing it and trying to score, or if it’s a bunch of bodies around there just to get on it.”
Just because a new face is there to lead the defense, however, doesn’t necessarily mean change will happen. As senior linebacker Amarlo Herrera put it, there were times last year where players “just weren’t going full speed.” While they thought the effort was there, Herrera realized upon Pruitt’s arrival that it wasn’t even close.
For Herrera, Pruitt can’t teach them how to create turnovers because, as football players, they should already know how to do that. What Pruitt has brought, however, is an enhanced energy that can positively affect takeaways.
“It’s just part of effort,” he said. “If you give effort and hustle to the ball to try to get it out, that’s when you get those turnovers and big plays on defense.”