Based on Kirby Smart’s comments, is there reason to be concerned with mindset of DBs?

UGA football-Georgia Bulldogs-J.R. Reed-Ahkil Crumpton-spring pratice 2018
Junior safety J.R. Reed (20) prepares to cover Georgia's Ahkil Crumpton in a pass-skeleton drill during the Bulldogs' 10th spring practice on Tuesday in Athens. Reed and senior Deandre Baker are the only regular starters to return in the secondary for the Bulldogs in 2018.

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Coach Kirby Smart’s recent comments about the defense, in particular about players not learning the playbook, had me wondering whether there is an issue with some of the defensive players not buying into the sort of mindset that allowed Georgia to excel last year. Do you think that is a concern?

 Ben Deck, Washington, N.C.

ANSWER: Kirby’s comments on this subject have me wondering the same things, Ben. I think the easy answers are, yes, it’s concern, and the truth probably lies in between this being a real issue and it being a motivational tactic by a tough coach.

Let’s be clear: Defensive back is a hard position to play. Maybe the hardest. Quarterbacks have to learn more and know more, but at least they’re dictating the action. DBs have to read and react, have to be tremendously athletic and cover huge areas of the field, have to be strong and tough and tackle well, have to understand offensive route concepts and be deceptive so not to give away to quarterbacks whether they’re in zone or man. It’s never as simple as “line up on that receiver and cover him.” If it were, looking at the collection of athletes Georgia has assembled in that group, I don’t think they’d have any issues.

That’s the positive here. As Georgia did with the offensive line, secondary has been an area of intense recruiting focus in Smart’s first few seasons. Counting walk-ons, there were 19 defensive backs working with coach Mel Tucker in practice on Tuesday. And they’re an incredible-looking group athletically. Redshirt freshmen such as Ameer Speed (6-foot-3, 211 pounds) and Tray Bishop (6-3, 210) represent a new breed for Georgia.

Their numbers will increase in June when four more freshman signees join the group, along with sophomore Deangelo Gibbs (we’re left to assume). So that’s basically 24 players to compete for five positions, including five who have started at least one game in their career. The newcomers all commanded recruiting ratings of 4 stars or better, including 5-star cornerback Tyson Campbell of Plantation, Fla. I can’t imagine Alabama or Florida or many other schools having a better collection physically or in total number.

That said, one of the drawbacks of recruiting so many highly touted prospects is sometimes having to battle entitlement and work ethic issues. Often, these recruits are so much bigger and more physically gifted than their high school counterparts that they didn’t have to work as hard to have success. And they’ve been told for so long how great they are and how much money they’re eventually going to make “in the league” that coaches end up having to “de-recruit” them after getting them on campus. Some players don’t take too well to being meticulously critiqued and coached hard.

As for what Smart has had to say about them publicly, you can be fairly certain he wouldn’t be heaping praise on this group even if they deserved it. That’s been his coaching style going back to his early years at Bama. He’s a perfectionist and demands it from his players and likes to send messages through his commentary to the media.

Some of his criticism undoubtedly is warranted. Not only is Georgia’s secondary young and inexperienced as a group, but it’s also going against a seasoned offense led by quarterback Jake Fromm and a strong receiving corps every day. So it’s all relative, as spring practices always are. Then again, the SEC is expected to feature some exceptional quarterback play in 2018. The Bulldogs will face South Carolina’s Jake Bentley and Missouri’s Drew Lock on the road in the season’s first month. So Georgia’s DBs are going to need to play at a high level out of the gate.

I do believe the Bulldogs secondary is going to need to play better fundamentally in 2018 because of an expected drop-off in Georgia’s front seven. As has always been said, there’s nothing better for a defensive backfield than a good pass rush. But I suspect out of a pool of 24 players, the Bulldogs can find six-to-eight players who can get the job done.

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