ATHENS – For Georgia’s secondary, it was the most indelible image from the season opener: A defensive back reaching up and knocking away a pass, preventing a long completion, or a touchdown, or both.
Great moments. Exciting highlights. And Kirby Smart doesn’t want to see any more of them.
“To be a good football team, we have to be able to cover man to man,” Smart said. “They got behind us at times. If that happens we give up big plays. We were very fortunate.”
Georgia got lucky, in other words. And if its defensive backs don’t cover better, they may get burned soon, whether it’s by Chad Kelly at Ole Miss, Joshua Dobbs at Tennessee, or whoever.
“I think we played well enough to win, but I don’t think we met our standard of a defense,” said junior cornerback Malkom Parrish, whose knock-away of a pass into the end zone was one of those highlights.
On paper, everything’s great in Georgia’s secondary: It held North Carolina – a team that averaged 262 passing yards per game last year – to just 156. North Carolina quarterback Mitch Trubisky was 0-for-8 on throws of 15-plus yards, according to ESPN stats; last year the Tar Heels completed 44 percent of those passes, including 15 touchdowns and only four interceptions.
Senior nickel back Maurice Smith had a couple more of those highlights, knocking away a couple of very deep balls. He said two days after the game that his inability to haul in an interception on one of them was still bothering him.
“They actually put us in coverages where we would be able to contend for the deep ball, and I think we had a lot of chances to make plays,” Smith said. “And that’s something we’ll have to work on this week, so we can get more turnovers. Especially with that many deep balls being thrown.”
But Smart, himself a former safety at Georgia, would rather not rely on his defensive backs making great one-on-one plays.
Georgia’s game plan in the front seven was very sound: The edge rushers tended to hold back, preventing the mobile Trubisky from scrambling. The Tar Heels appeared to try from the outset to stretch Georgia’s defense by attempting the long ball. And they kept trying, even when it didn’t work. Trubisky overthrew a few times, and Georgia’s defensive backs made some good plays.
But the fact the Tar Heels kept trying shows they thought they were on the verge of burning the Bulldogs. And Smart said Georgia’s game plan was not to leave his secondary in one-on-one coverage.
“It’s never a strategy to be on an island,” Smart said. “We certainly have pressures you have to run. But at the end of the day, we’ve got to be able to cover better.”
For now, there don’t appear to be any personnel shakeups. Smith, a surprise starter at nickel back over Rico McGraw, is still working with the first team in practice this week. Parrish and Juwuan Briscoe are still at corner, and Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis are still at safety. (Senior Quincy Mauger may rotate in at safety as well.)
The main fix the coaches appear to be trying is to just warn their secondary that, essentially, they got lucky Saturday. They may not the next time.