Georgia coach Kirby Smart knows the secondary is going to be a position of concern for Georgia in 2021.
And the Georgia coach recently stressed how important it is for Georgia to play to its strengths and weaknesses. That means doing what it can to help the new-look group of defensive backs.
“It doesn’t matter if you are talking about running or throwing the ball, but the makeup of what is between the ears of your players, that dynamic changes,” Smart said. “I think defining that every year is really critical. Know who you are.”
If we consider the secondary a clear weakness to start the year, Georgia’s most obvious strength comes on the defensive line.
The Bulldogs bring back a number of major contributors in Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt and Jalen Carter. Georgia only has to replace Malik Herring, but it has Travon Walker ready to step in and play maybe an even more productive role for the Bulldogs.
Smart expects the defensive line to help make life easier for the secondary, hinting Georgia will play to its strength in that regard.
“The best part of the secondary will be the front four getting some pressure and being able to rush, so that will be just as important as anything else that we do,” Smart said.
But if Georgia leans more on its defensive line for production, that will mark a change in the way the Georgia defense has operated.
Traditionally under Smart, much of the tackle for loss and sack production comes from the linebacker level and not the defensive line. The 2017 team saw only 7.0 of its 34.0 sacks from the defensive line and 20.5 of its 93 tackles for loss.
We did actually see an uptick in those numbers on the 2019 team as the Georgia defensive line finished with 30 tackles for loss and 10.0 sacks. That is the high-water mark for defensive line production since Smart became the head coach at Georgia.
But this past season, those numbers regressed. The Georgia defensive line generated only 13 tackles for loss and only 4.0 sacks. Even when taking in per-game averages, it was the lowest mark since Smart became the Georgia head coach.
The Bulldogs were able to supplant much of that production thanks to some standout play at the outside linebacker play. The 2021 team won’t have Azeez Ojulari or Jermaine Johnson to chip in. Georgia must replace linebacker Monty Rice as well.
There’s hope that Adam Anderson and Nolan Smith are able to match what Ojulari and Johnson did a season ago. But as was proven against Alabama and Florida, the Bulldogs still need more of those havoc plays to slow the best offenses, and thus teams, in the sport.
The Bulldogs will have to lean more on Davis, Carter and Walker to create more of those disruptive plays, especially as college football continues to become a more offensive-minded game.
“It’s about affecting the quarterback, creating negative plays and forcing turnovers,” ESPN’s David Pollack said. “You’re not going to stop teams consistently anymore. Those days are gone. You have to create those negative plays, create those turnovers to get the ball back to your offense and that will be the biggest thing next year.”
Georgia did have the nation’s top run defense in 2020 and 2019. With Davis coming back, the Bulldogs should once again dominate in that department. The Georgia offense also does figure to be a bigger strength in 2021 than it has been in past seasons as well.
The Bulldogs bring back quarterback JT Daniels, offensive coordinator Todd Monken and many of its top weapons from a season ago. For perhaps the first time under Smart, Georgia’s offense should more closely resemble what Alabama and Clemson have put on the field in recent years.
If Smart wants to play to Georgia’s strengths with this team, perhaps he should let both the offense and the defensive line cook more in this coming season. The offense certainly has the potential to be more potent, while the Georgia defensive line might be one of the top positional groups in all of college football.
The Georgia secondary has long been a strength for Georgia. For the first time in a while, it won’t be for Smart and the Bulldogs. So how does Smart go about working around the position and how does the defensive line, a clear strength, play into that?
Count Pollack among the many who are interested to see how it plays out and how the Bulldogs adapt their style to match their strengths.
“It will be interesting to see philosophically how much more aggressive you get when you know you got a really good offense on the other side of the ball,” Smart said. “Do you want to bring more pressure, bring more heat, which allows more sacks and negative plays?”
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