ATHENS – The young and generally untested Georgia defense was surrounded by doubt after losing so much of its talent to the 2022 NFL draft, including five first-round picks and a Butkus Award winner.
Returning just three starters this season, it seems to have found identity in its so-called weakness.
That identity is found in its first-time starters relying more on each other than the uber-talented, battle-tested 2021 unit had to.
For defensive linemen like Zion Logue, Nazir Stackhouse and Jalen Carter, it has been about filling the massive shoes left by Jordan Davis and Devonte Wyatt.
“We have beef up front, but we don’t have 340 pounds, guys just running from sideline to sideline,” Logue said. “We don’t have the veteran guys in each room like we used to, so we’ve just got to lean on each other.”
So far, that strategy has seemed to work, upholding the standard the 2021 defense set.
The Bulldog front has allowed an average of 79.5 yards rushing per game this season. Through its first 12 games in 2021, UGA allowed 78.9.
Georgia also finished the regular season as the country’s top-scoring defense for a second consecutive year.
Javon Bullard, whose 36 tackles are good for the fifth most on the team, has noticed a similar trend of reliance in the secondary.
The Milledgeville, Ga., product, along with starting defensive backs Kamari Lassiter and Malaki Starks, has become a key starter for Georgia in the back end.
“That’s the thing with this defense, it’s kind of like a ‘help me help you’ defense,” Bullard said. “We take ownership in that, just knowing what we have to do in our job.”
In many ways, the 2022 team is being compared to that of 2021, and rightfully so after Georgia once again finished the regular season with an unbeaten record. One way this year’s group of Bulldogs can distinguish themselves, though, is with an SEC championship on Saturday.
That will require another week of leaning on each other, as LSU enters Atlanta averaging 433.4 yards and 32.5 points per game. A talented group of receivers coupled with a physical, downhill rushing attack could give Georgia problems.
A new team with new goals and personnel can’t afford to focus on the past much, but the impact left by 2021 is certainly still felt.
“I’d be lying to you if I said we didn’t really think about it, but we’re not trying to be last year’s team,” Bullard said. “That’s the biggest difference between this year’s team and last year’s team. We’re not looking in their shadows, we’re just trying to be the best team we can possibly be.