ATHENS — It seemed too convenient a narrative: The Georgia defense, with all that talent coming back, was being gouged. It was being “ran through,” to use Kirby Smart’s term, by an offense that had struggled last season.
Prop up a unit that needed a confidence boost. Light a fire under a unit that could be complacent. Nice try, Kirby, nice try.
But here was the thing: It actually seemed to be true. People around the program this spring, publicly and privately, told of a surprising turn where the offensive line was having its way, pushing around the more experienced and talented defense. Something was definitely amiss, and G-Day would be a public test.
And the defense, as it turned out, looked just fine.
At least the first-team defense, which held its offensive counterparts to just two field goals in the first half, and picked off a pass. Jacob Eason’s offense moved the ball a bit better in the second half, but several key numbers illustrate the point:
The first-team offense couldn’t run the ball. Brian Herrien, essentially the starting tailback for the first-team offense, was held to 18 yards on 11 carries. His longest run was four yards.
The first-team defense had five sacks.
“We’ve been doing really well on our third down,” said Jonathan Ledbetter, who had one of the five sacks. “We need to work on stopping the run, and we did that today, holding the offense and just getting better.”
What passing success Eason and Co. did have — 311 yards, most of it in the second half — may be tempered too. Smart said they limited the coverages played by the secondary, in an effort to get the passing game going.
“Obviously we didn’t run the ball like we wanted to, but to be honest with you that wasn’t part of the game plan. We wanted to see if we could throw the ball some, move it around,” Smart said. “I would’ve liked to have ran it better with the [first team] offense, which we didn’t do, which we have to improve on, which we have to be better at. But there were some challenges, we limited the coordinators, and we limited the offenses with those opportunities.”
Smart was asked whether the 5 sacks left him more concerned about the offensive line or more pleased with the defensive line.
“More concerned, always. I think that’s always the case,” Smart said, but then cautioned that there were a lot more passing situations.
Actually, there are caveats on both sides:
The offense didn’t really use its 2 best weapons, as star tailbacks Nick Chubb and Sony Michel combined for 3 touches. The offense was also held back in general, for the obvious reason of not showing this year’s opponents the new wrinkles.
“I don’t know,” Chubb said, when asked how much stock should be put in the offensive showing on G-Day. “We have a lot of stuff we could do. But I think it was pretty simple today.”
But the defense was held back too. Three of its best players didn’t play: Inside linebacker Roquan Smith and defensive lineman Trent Thompson were out all spring with injuries, and safety Dominick Sanders also wasn’t seen on Saturday, perhaps because of a sprained knee suffered in an earlier scrimmage.
Despite all that, Georgia’s defense still did just fine.
“I feel like today it came out,” Ledbetter said. “But we’ve been doing that all spring. Iron sharpens iron. Offense and defense. They’ve had practices where they’ve done really well and we may not have done so well. And we’ve had practices where we did well and they didn’t.”
So what does all this mean for the season?
Look, Georgia returns 10 starters from a unit that finished 16th nationally and fourth in the SEC in total yards allowed last year. If the rough spring was the result of complacency, then maybe that needs to be worked on. But by all accounts, the main thing hurting the defense this spring was run defense — and as long as Smith and Thompson return healthy, that would help, no?
This isn’t to say that all is hunky-dory. Georgia’s defense has the experience and talent to be great this year. Not just 16th nationally and fourth in the SEC, but top 5 nationally and top 3 in the SEC, just as it was in 2011. That Georgia defense still has players all over NFL rosters, and this year’s defense will too.
That’s the main question: Will Georgia’s defense be dominant in 2017? If it’s not, the spring may be looked back on as a sign that something was holding it back.
But let’s not reverse roles here. Georgia’s offense and special teams should remain the biggest concern points. The defense shouldn’t be. And if it somehow is, then this could be a really rough year.