ATHENS – Aaron Davis was one of those rare, literal walk-ons. Four years ago, then-Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham might not even have known who Davis was during their one season together.
“Probably not too much,” said Davis, who redshirted in 2013, Grantham’s final year season the team. “I didn’t spend too much time with him.”
Four years later, Davis had 6 tackles, several of them jarring throw-downs, in a dominant 31-3 win Saturday over Mississippi State, for whom Grantham now coaches.
Georgia’s defense is emerging as one of the best in the country, producing shut-down results commensurate with its talent basis. Linebacker Lorenzo Carter, defensive lineman Trenton Thompson and safety Richard LeCounte were 5-star recruits. Any school with a pulse wanted inside linebacker Roquan Smith. In all, there are 20 defensive players who were at least 4-star recruits coming out of high school on the Georgia roster.
And if this defense does go down as a great one, it will be another testament to the divergent ways a team can be built.
J.R. Reed came to Georgia last year after a nondescript first year at Tulsa. The general thought was Georgia accepted his transfer to get his cousin, 4-star recruit Deangelo Gibbs. Instead, it was Reed who earned a starting spot and might turn out to be one of the great finds in recent Georgia history, leading the team with 10 tackles against Mississippi State.
“He did a good job on the scout team last year. Coaches saying, ‘Hey man, J.R. Reed’s going to be a good player,’” coach Kirby Smart said. “Then when the spring came, and it was like, ‘This guy’s a starter.’”
So are Deandre Baker and Dominick Sanders, two 3-star recruits who each had an interception Saturday. So was Davin Bellamy, one of the team’s starting outside linebackers.
“You just have a wide variety of players,” Davis said. “Whether you came in highly recruited, not very recruited at all, at the end of the day some guys get overlooked, some guys get overhyped. It all depends on what you do when you get here.”
Smart has gone about improving the team’s talent base since he was hired as coach in December 2015. He reeled in the nation’s third-ranked recruiting class for 2017, behind Alabama and Ohio State, according to the 247Sports composite. But the talent base he inherited on defense was strong enough that none of the 2017 recruits started against Mississippi State. Only one, LeCounte, has started a game this year.
Grantham’s reputation as a recruiter might have been maligned in some quarters, but he did sign Bellamy and nose tackle John Atkins.
Jeremy Pruitt, who was hired as then-coach Mark Richt’s defensive coordinator early in 2014, oversaw the signing of current starters Carter, Thompson, Smith, Sanders, Baker, Malkom Parrish, Jonathan Ledbetter and Natrez Patrick. The Richt-Pruitt staff also laid the groundwork toward bringing in Julian Rochester, among others.
Smart knew many of these players when he arrived, having recruited them when he was an assistant coach at Alabama. So he knew there was potential there – and he has supplemented it with players such as 2016 signees Tyler Clark, David Marshall and Tyrique McGhee. And, of course, the Bulldogs uncovered Reed.
“There have been good defensive players at Georgia for a long time,” said Smart, himself a two-time All-SEC safety at Georgia. “It’s getting them to play well, putting the right package together and putting the perfect storm together with the talent that we had, and getting these guys to play well.”
So far that’s happening. But Smart clearly doesn’t want this defense to think it’s accomplished anything yet. He pointed to the spring, when he said he thought the offense mostly got the better of the defense, implying that the defense needs to be wary of overconfidence.
“We still have not played our best,” Smart said of his defense. “We still have guys that do not strike blockers the right way and do it the right way consistently. We have a couple guys that turn down hits. I know, to you guys, we’re looking at stats and the numbers, but there are several plays in that game that are this far from being the other way [if] we don’t do it right, and we’ve got to make those plays.”