ATHENS – A time or two this spring, when the Georgia football team has gone offense vs. defense, one of those speedy tailbacks has broken through in a way that, on one hand, made Kirby Smart feel good about his offense. But not so good about the other side.
“Uh oh. That guy didn’t cover that guy like 3 used to,” Smart recalled thinking to himself, with almost a rueful smile.
Smart was referencing Roquan Smith, of course. But Smart also could have referenced 17 (Davin Bellamy), 7 (Lorenzo Carter), 97 (John Atkins), 45 (Reggie Carter), 35 (Aaron Davis) …. and so on.
Georgia, which ranked sixth last season in fewest yards and points allowed, lost all this off that defense:
- All four linebackers who started in the Rose Bowl and National Championship Game, including arguably the best defensive player in the country, Smith.
- Two defensive backs who were four-year starters: Davis and Dominick Sanders. The latter finished tied for Georgia’s career interception record.
- The starting nose tackle, John Atkins, the unsung pillar of the defensive line, along with ultra-talented Trenton Thompson, who dealt with injuries for most of last season.
The last such massive exodus occurred between the 2012 and 2013 seasons. There are some eerie similarities: The team lost six senior starters, plus a first-team All-America junior linebacker (Jarvis Jones) and a junior defensive lineman (Kwame Geathers) — as well as junior inside linebacker Alec Ogletree, who was also pretty good.
That transition did not go well. Georgia plummeted from 18th nationally in scoring defense to 79th. But there are some obvious differences this time around, and not just with the defensive coaching staff. Back then, Georgia had signed more modestly ranked defensive classes. This time, the Bulldogs can turn to players from classes ranked first nationally (2018), third nationally (2017) and top 10 going every year back to 2014.
“I think we’ve got a lot of talent on this team; it’s just about putting it together,” senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said.
Ledbetter then specifically mentioned a freshman, cornerback Divaad Wilson, who a few days later tore an ACL in practice. That hurts, obviously, but there is still plenty of talent to draw from this spring, and more help will arrive this summer.
“All across the board we’re going to have a lot of competition,” said junior safety J.R. Reed, another one of the few returning starters. “We need to see what a lot of these young guys, and what a lot of guys on this team, are made of.”
So there is plenty of reason to think Georgia could be just fine this year. Alabama has had to reload and rebuild before and done just fine.
But there’s also reason to worry, given the nature of the players who are gone: Each was a leader of his unit, from Atkins on the line, to the four linebackers, to Sanders and Davis in the secondary. They all had invaluable experience.
And Smith by himself made so many plays simply because of his abilities. He was close to a once-in-a-generation talent, and those plays will not be easily replaced, if they are at all.
“Certainly not having him there, there’s things that pop up,” Smart said of the inside linebackers. “There’s good players there. There’s not maybe a dynamic player. They’ve got to do it by committee.”
But then Smart added: “I do like that group.”
It includes Natrez Patrick, the senior who would have started in the College Football Playoff last season if not for off-field issues. He’s back on track now, and teammates say he’s been providing vocal leadership.
In fact, the four starters who return from the National Championship Game – Ledbetter, Reed, cornerback Deandre Baker and defensive tackle Tyler Clark – each has All-SEC potential. And Georgia rotated enough on defense that several others saw significant playing time last year, especially on the defensive line and at outside linebacker.
Senior D’Andre Walker, who was second on the team in sacks last year despite never starting a game, had a succinct answer when asked why he was confident about the 2018 defense.
“There are just some guys on this team who have a lot of game-time experience,” Walker said.
That, and stellar recruiting, are reason enough to think there will not be a redux of Georgia’s 2013 season. Smith’s play-making abilities will not be replaced, but there is still plenty of talent. It’s just younger, less experienced talent, and not as experienced playing together as was the 2017 defense.
“That’s really the most important thing,” Ledbetter said. “You have teams that are talented but then you have those teams who are a close-knit unit and they somehow find ways to win the game against the team that’s supposed to be more talented, because they’re able to work together and communicate better.”
That could be the key for the defense this season. The process for molding together a different, but still good, unit is underway.