Defensive tackle Julian Rochester started 12 games for Georgia last season. He hasn’t played a snap through four games — three of which weren’t closely contested — in 2019.
Rochester suffered a torn ACL at the end of last season. He endured the strenuous battle of recovery with a later timeline than his teammates who also dealt with the crushing knee injury. He missed the spring, but he’s cleared to play without limitation. Georgia head coach Kirby Smart gets asked about Rochester every couple of weeks, well, because the 300-pound senior hasn’t seen the field.
Smart doesn’t understand. Georgia holds him out by choice, not mandate.
“I don’t know what it is you guys (the media) have got on this whole Julian Rochester kick,” he said. “Julian is progressing, getting better. When he’s better than the guy that he’s going against or better than the guys behind him, he’ll play.”
Read the phrase again: When he’s better than the guys behind him. Rochester is fighting with the talents of Devonte Wyatt, Jordan Davis, Michael Barnett and others. With his setback, Rochester simply hasn’t won the opportunity for playing time.
Georgia prides itself on competition and this is where it shines the brightest. In fact, that’s where the team’s defense flexes its biggest strength — a luxury that hasn’t been as prominent throughout Smart’s four-year tenure. There is plenty of depth and a lot of options, and it extends beyond the defensive front to the linebackers and a level further to the secondary.
Georgia defensive coordinator Dan Lanning wanted to play a lot of his guys. He’s getting his wish so far.
“We have a good amount of people who can come in and play at a high level,” inside linebacker Monty Rice said.
At each level, Georgia freely rotates: in-and-out swaps on the defensive line; a four-deep inside linebacker rotation with Rice, Tae Crowder, Nakobe Dean and Channing Tindall; and interchangeable parts at outside linebacker with Nolan Smith and Jermaine Johnson working in a unit with Adam Anderson and Robert Beal. Finally, on the back line, Georgia has been tested and answered the call with Tyrique McGhee and DJ Daniel stepping in to fill in for the injured Eric Stokes and Tyson Campbell.
Within that depth is substantial production that has driven Georgia to its 4-0 record and No. 3 ranking. Smart thrives upon defensive success, and he’s seeing more of it with a young group that has allowed for talent to flash on Saturday afternoons.
Georgia has allowed an average of 10 points per game, the sixth-best scoring defense nationally — seven of those allowed points came with eight yards to work with after Tyler Simmons’ muffed punt against Notre Dame. Rushing defense is a notch better with the fifth-lowest average nationally at 57 yards allowed per game.
Georgia’s passing defense averages 205.5 yards allowed per game, which seems detrimental in comparison at 46th nationally. (Side note: One-win Georgia Tech has beaten its rival with a fifth-best 136.8 passing yards allowed per game.)
“We’ve come together and understand a lot of things about our defense,” defensive back Mark Webb Jr. said. “We’re seeing things that we didn’t before, starting to get to the ball more and some things that we really hone in on. We are trying to get more, more and more every week.”
But some moments of defensive breakdown also justify development.
Georgia allowed Notre Dame some success by persistently throwing at tight end Cole Kmet and wide receiver Chase Claypool. Notre Dame had a late-game offensive surge to work its way into contention as the Bulldogs squeezed out a 23-17 win. Through each game, although not much can be taken away from three opponents of lesser competition, the defense has had some minor breakdowns.
That leads to a list of areas that Smart wants to improve on. His players quickly concur, too, and are pleased with their effort while wanting enhanced performance. One need is the “havoc,” the metric compiled by turnovers, sacks and other ways to disrupt offenses that Georgia uses as its defensive backbone. Georgia doesn’t always like its pursuit of the football, nor is it content with the effectiveness in tackling.
“There’s a lot of things we’re looking to improve on defensively,” Smart said. “Our guys are pushing each day out there. They’re trying to get better.”
At the season’s quarter pole, Georgia’s defense has proven itself to be legitimate. In the Bulldogs’ own minds, however, those strengths can become vastly stronger.
“We haven’t arrived yet. We’re just getting started,” Webb said. “There’s a long way to go with a lot of things we can improve on.”