In safety Dominick Sanders’ mind, there has been improvement among the Georgia secondary through two games in 2016.
The Bulldogs have mostly held their own against the pass and currently rank 19th in the nation in passing yards allowed per game. While the unexpectedly close game against Nicholls State left little to beam about, Georgia’s defense did manage to force three turnovers, which Sanders said is the team’s goal for every game.
There is, however, always room for more growth.
“The previous week, against North Carolina, we made a lot of mistakes,” Sanders said. “This week, we have got a lot of improvement in tackling and -- for me personally -- tackling. There's still things we've got to work on individually and as a whole.”
Georgia’s pass coverage wasn’t exactly dissected by the Tar Heels or the Colonels, but that’s not to say the defenders played perfectly. The Bulldogs were a step behind a few times in the season opener but were bailed out by a few off-the-mark throws from Mitch Trubisky in his first collegiate start. Sanders himself nearly made a critical error on Saturday, falling down on a deep ball that could have given Nicholls State the surge it needed to pull off the major upset. Instead, the ball fell harmlessly to the ground.
With those near-disasters avoided, the Bulldogs’ secondary faces an important early test on the road against Missouri on Saturday. Tigers quarterback Drew Lock has gotten off to a strong start in 2016 and is coming off a 450-yard performance, which leaves him fifth in the nation as far as passing yards are concerned.
While it is worth noting Lock’s latest big plays came against Eastern Michigan, that’s not to say the sophomore isn’t capable of torching the Bulldogs if they give him the chance.
“He's got an arm,” Sanders said. “He's not scared to take shots down the field. As a secondary guy and as a leader, I've got to do my thing of keeping my guys focused and letting them know the ball will be in the air and we've got to get turnovers for the offense.”
Turnovers, after all, may be the key to stopping Lock. Missouri went 3-3 when the then-freshman did not throw an interception in 2015. Meanwhile, the team went 2-4 when Lock did turn the ball over, which included two 18-point losses when he threw more than one interception.
Missouri’s fast-paced offense could give Georgia’s defensive backfield issues. At the very least, the Bulldogs can say they’ve survived this type of test already this season.
The season opener in the Georgia Dome pitted the Bulldogs against a Tar Heels offense that carried the potential of ruining Georgia’s first game of the season. North Carolina showed flashes of its speed burning the Bulldogs, but the end result for Georgia was 156 passing yards allowed in a nine-point victory.
“North Carolina was a very fast team, and as a defense we prepared throughout the week (for the speed),” Sanders said. “As a defense, we've got to get back to the ball faster than the offense gets back. It's not nothing we haven't faced yet.”
But the pace of play isn’t the only common characteristic in the Tigers and Tar Heels, at least according to Georgia head coach Kirby Smart.
“We've been challenged, especially in the first game in the secondary, from a standpoint of matchups,” Smart said. “It'll be very similar to this game. They've got very explosive wideouts, and they do a good job of using those guys. They're a little unorthodoxed in some things they do offensively, but they do a great job of going really fast.”
Georgia’s defense did not have its finest hour against the Colonels, but Saturday’s game can build off the occasional big moments the 11 defenders produced in that game. The added bonus is doing so can help the Bulldogs start conference play with a win, which can keep Georgia on pace in a East division that is as up in the air as it’s ever been.
Making that happen won’t take a complete overhaul of how the defenders prepare for this game. Instead, Sanders said it simply boils down to the basics.
“(It’s about) getting the calls, getting the coverages, reading our keys,” Sanders said. “That's what's going to help us out.”