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Georgia’s defense is good, but can it be great?

Lorenzo Carter-Georgia football
Georgia's defense squelched Tennessee on this play, and for much of last year's game, but not enough.

Roquan Smith grew up in Georgia, so he remembers watching some very good — borderline great, even — Bulldogs defenses. His frame of reference isn’t the Junkyard Dawg defenses of legendary defensive coordinator Erk Russell, but it doesn’t need to be.

“I remember the SEC championship defense a couple years ago,” Smith said. “I was a little younger then, the Thomas Davis and Greg Blue defense. So those were some pretty awesome defenses. But Georgia always had a pretty solid defense. So we’re just trying to be the best defense we can be.”

And that might be the underrated key to Georgia’s season.

When the list of concerns and questions about Georgia’s chances is compiled, the defense isn’t usually mentioned. It’s taken for granted, what with all but one starter coming back from a unit that ranked 16th nationally and fourth in the SEC in total defense.

But here’s the thing: If Georgia’s defense could go from good to great this year, it likely would have a ripple effect that would lift other areas.

Imagine a great, shut-down defense, and how much pressure that would take off quarterback Jacob Eason, offensive coordinator Jim Chaney and the offensive line. Imagine shorter fields for Eason and company to work with, and less pressure to score early.

A good defense, as Georgia had last year, still commits enough errors to cause the less-successful areas of the team — offensive blocking and special teams, in this case — to be that much more exposed.

A great defense, however, could give the offense room to breathe and work around any of its own deficiencies. Having trouble running the ball in a game? Well, don’t panic and call low-percentage passes. Punt and let the defense do its thing; you’ll get the ball back soon.

“We know we have the capability of being a great defense in the SEC – well, in the country,” Smith said.

So what are the chances of that happening? Not fully guaranteed, actually.

Oozing with talent, but …

Yes, all but one starter returns, but he was a very good starter. Maurice Smith, a late addition to the team, still started every game at nickelback and ended up a team captain.

The rest of the secondary is experienced, led by Dominick Sanders. But the secondary still has instances of leakiness. The linebackers are very good, but we’re still waiting for the outside players to rack up sacks. The defensive line is deep and talented, but the run defense still finished only fourth in the SEC last year.

This, pretty much, will be the same defense that won some games last year — but had some bad moments. Ole Miss vaporized the Bulldogs for 510 yards. Nicholls State, an average FCS team, managed 236 yards and won time of possession. Georgia Tech was able to rally from 13 points down in the fourth quarter.

Still, this defense oozes talent. It reflects elite-level recruiting done during former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt’s two years, as well as the players Kirby Smart and company have been able to sign. There are 5-star players and top 100-rated 4-stars.

There are no obvious weaknesses. Smart, when appearing at SEC Media Days last week, was reminded that this time last year he was concerned about the defensive line. Now even Smart had to acknowledge it was a strength.

“There’s obviously confidence in the defensive line now,” Smart said. “We have so many guys back. We have a lot of freshmen that played last year on the defensive front.”

Historical context

Here’s a somewhat surprising stat: Georgia has not had the SEC’s top-rated defense, as measured by fewest yards allowed, since 1968.

There have been some very highly ranked defenses, especially nationally: Pruitt’s defense in 2015 was seventh nationally, Todd Grantham’s defense in 2011 was fifth, Brian VanGorder’s defenses in 2003 and 2004 were fourth and eighth, respectively. But they always had other SEC defenses ahead of them.

This year’s defense, even if it lives up to its potential, will also be hard-pressed to be better than Alabama’s. But Pruitt, and then Smart, recruited well enough that Nick Saban could probably come to a Georgia practice one day, look at the defense and say, “This is close to what we’ve got. Very close.”

And on paper, Georgia’s schedule isn’t exactly stacked with explosive offenses. Only four were rated in the top 50 nationally last year: No. 13 Missouri, No. 40 Tennessee, No. 42 Auburn and No. 44 Mississippi State.

So this sets up as potentially a great year for Georgia’s defense. When you gauge the overall chances for Georgia this year, factor in whether the word “potentially” gets taken out of that sentence. A good defense wins you games, but sometimes only eight. A great defense can win you a lot more.

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