NEW ORLEANS — Dan Lanning may or may not be Georgia’s next defensive coordinator. He was Saturday, though, for all intents and purposes.
Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart likes to say “next man up” when it comes to players assuming positions on the football field. Well, Lanning was next man up on the podium Saturday morning when the Sugar Bowl itinerary turned to “Defensive Coordinator’s Press Conference.”
It was a duty Lanning learned he’d be handling only Friday.
“Coach Smart and I talked about it a little bit yesterday coming up here, doing the podium experience.,” Lanning said. “It’s definitely my first Sugar Bowl podium experience and a little different than being at Park Hill South High School when I was assistant coach.”
Lanning, 32, is definitely inexperienced. He’s never been a defensive coordinator, even when he was a high school assistant coach at Park Hill in Missouri. There he coached receivers, defensive backs and special teams.
And, to be clear, Lanning still carries the title of outside linebackers coach at Georgia. He’s in his first year in that role with the Bulldogs, having just been hired last January from Memphis. He was a coordinator there, but recruiting coordinator, as he also was at Sam Houston State and Arizona State.
For the purposes of Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl matchup with Texas and the preparation therein, Lanning has shared a role as co-defensive coordinator with inside linebackers coach Glenn Schumann, even though Smart was careful not to designate either as such. As ever, Smart appears to be keeping his options open.
But when it comes to the day-to-day job of coordinating Georgia’s defense for Tuesday’s Sugar Bowl matchup, it’s unquestionably Lanning the players have been hearing from the most.
“I wasn’t surprised at all,” junior defensive back Tyrique McGhee said of learning it was Lanning that was tabbed to speak to the media on the defense’s behalf Saturday. “When he first came in, he had opportunities to lead segments of our meetings, and he always was the most juiced-up, amped-up guy. Coach Tucker is that way as well when he’s in front of the guys.”
Said sophomore safety Richard LeCounte: “Oh, yeah, he’s definitely a real fired-up type of guy. He’s into the details of things, making sure that he points out the small things, because those are the things that get you beat. I appreciate that about him.”
As for designations, Smart said at the outset of bowl practices only that defensive assistants Glenn Schumann, Tray Scott and Lanning would be sharing the duties previously handled by defensive coordinator Mel Tucker, who left after the SEC Championship Game to become Colorado’s head coach. Smart, an All-SEC safety when he played at Georgia, is currently coaching the secondary, Tucker’s position group.
Of the six defensive players who were available for interviews Saturday morning, none of them knew that it was Lanning who would be representing them in the first-floor ballroom of the Marriott at the Convention Center here on the New Orleans waterfront. Lanning came and left without them ever seeing him, even though they were only one room away. So there’s a bit of intrigue involved from that standpoint.
But when McGhee heard after the fact that it was Lanning who assumed that role on Saturday, he wasn’t at all surprised.
McGhee told of the first time the defense as a whole heard from Lanning when bowl practices began back in Athens on Dec. 17.
“The man has the juice; I don’t think he ever gets tired,” McGhee said. “The first meeting he ran, he told everybody to stand up. We were like, ‘why’s this man want us to stand up?’ But he wanted to get juiced up and involved and asking questions. He wanted to hear from guys that don’t usually get a chance to ask questions in meetings. He gives everybody an opportunity to learn. I love Coach Lanning to death.”
Again, none of that is to say that Lanning is Georgia’s designated defensive coordinator of the future. Probably nobody on the staff knows Smart or his defense better than Schumann. The 28-year-old inside linebackers coach came to Georgia from Alabama, where he served as Smart’s defensive analyst for several years. And Schumann and Lanning could continue to share the duties, as it appears they have been for Tuesday’s bowl game.
Lanning has an Alabama background as well. He was a graduate assistant under Smart in 2015, when the Crimson Tide won the national championship. Any successor to Tucker is expected to fluently speak Smart’s defensive language. That’s why Oakland Raiders secondary coach Derrick Ansley (Bama DBs, 2015) and Tennessee co-defensive coordinator/outside linebackers coach Chris Rumph (Alabama D-line, 2011-13), are thought to be viable candidates that Smart might consider.
But somebody like Lanning makes sense as well, especially with Smart continuing to assume such a hands-on role with the defense.
“Oh, 100 percent,” senior defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter said of envisioning Lanning as Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “I mean, he’s outgoing. He gets quiet sometimes when he’s in the zone. He gets stuff done. He’s efficient. He loves us up. He’s a goofy guy sometimes. He can definitely relate to our players and talk to them in a way they can be coached and feel comfortable with their coaching staff.”
That said, Ledbetter wouldn’t be surprised if Lanning and Schumann shared the role or if any of Georgia’s current coaches or support staffers stepped into the role. Former defensive back Bacarri Rambo is assisting Smart with the secondary as a graduate assistant and could possibly be elevated to a full-time role in that capacity while Schumann and Lanning stuck with their position assignments.
“The machine’s going to keep rolling, no matter who’s here,” said Ledbetter, who works daily with Lanning. “It’s not like the whole system is going to change. It’s still Georgia. It’s still our brand.”
As for Lanning himself, there wasn’t much to draw from his 11-minute appearance before reporters Saturday. To say he played his comments close to the vest wouldn’t properly illustrate his determination not to say anything of substance. One could almost sense he didn’t want to say anything that might screw up this opportunity with his boss.
Lanning had a chance to leave Georgia and join Tucker at Colorado, presumably as a coordinator. He obviously passed on the opportunity as UGA defensive analyst and former Georgia Southern head coach Tyson Summers ultimately took that job.
Lanning neither confirmed nor denied his involvement with Colorado or if he was interested in filling the current Georgia vacancy. He was asked directly if he’d interviewed for the Bulldogs’ DC job, or would eventually. He avoided it like a quarterback would a blitzing linebacker.
“Our complete focus has been this game,” said Lanning, who’s working on a one-year contract that pays him $325,000. “Leading up to this game, we had our signing day. So, you know, I think opportunities and decisions will be made (after the bowl). There’s going to be a ton and there is a ton of interest in the Georgia defensive coordinator job. There are going to be a lot of candidates for that position.”
Expect Lanning to be one of them. His presence on that Sugar Bowl podium practically assures that. And Georgia’s defensive players certainly wouldn’t mind it being him, or anybody on the current staff.
“It really doesn’t matter,” LeCounte said. “I love all those guys and they’re all fit for the job. That’s not really my place to say. But it’s not a shocker that it was Coach Lanning (on the podium Saturday) because he’s a great coach, and he knows his stuff, just like Coach Schu or anybody else we deal with every day.”