ATHENS — Georgia football coach Kirby Smart has said “If it ain’t broke, make it better” when it comes to ideas and growing his program.
That’s why when Smart complimented Dan Lanning for doing some things “out of the box” during the 2018 season. it was a giveaway that Lanning was headed for big things at Georgia.
It takes a lot to impress Smart, and even more genius to introduce something he hasn’t seen or considered that proves effective.
Georgia hadn’t led the SEC in total defense in college football’s modern era until Lanning became the Bulldogs’ coordinator.
Lanning, in his first season calling defensive plays, helped UGA accomplish that noteworthy feat for the first time since 1968 — seven years before Smart was born.
Georgia also ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense, No. 1 in rush defense and No. 8 in pass efficiency defense.
Consider,, Lanning received an extension on his $1.25 million contract last week, an aggressive move amid these COVID-19 cost-cutting times.
“You talk about being in a place you would love to raise your family, and Athens [has] truly been that place,” Lanning said on a Zoom call last Friday. “Three years, for me in college football, this will be the longest I’ve been anywhere.
“Sometimes it takes that progression to get you there in your career, and I am very fortunate to be in a place where I could see myself for a long time.”
Still a bargain
Georgia fans need to be sure to get it right: The 34-year-old Lanning is still a bargain when you look around the SEC and see four other defensive coordinators making more money.
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Lanning looks to become to Smart what Smart was to Nick Saban when Alabama was building its dynasty.
Saban won four national titles the eight years Smart was his defensive coordinator. Without Kirby as his DC, Saban is one of five — and that took a second-and-26 overtime miracle.
Lanning will get a chance to show his value against Alabama’s high-powered offense when the teams meet on Oct. 17 in Tuscaloosa.
It’s Year Five for Smart in Athens, the Bulldogs have the talent and experience to run the table and go undefeated.
It’s going to come down to Lanning and his defensive staff coaching up the players to make the sort of players they could not make against eventual national champion LSU last December.
For all of those defensive accolades last season, the Tigers pounded Georgia’s defense in a 37-10 win, rolling up 481 yards.
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It was a fundamental breakdown more so than scheme.
LSU players broke tackles and well-positioned Georgia defenders missed what would have been key interceptions.
“Ultimately, we didn’t finish on plays,” Lanning said on Friday. “We were in the right place at times and didn’t capitalize.”
Lanning tried to console his team by saying it didn’t take away from the season.
But it did. Georgia football has risen to the level that it’s all about championships.
Money brings pressure
The kind of money Smart and Lanning are making, along with the highest recruiting budget in the nation, doesn’t make performances like the LSU flop acceptable.
There’s a reason only one Georgia defender was selected in the 2020 NFL Draft. Big-time players make big-time plays in big-time games.
As for Lanning’s future, he must realize that part of the reason Smart was able to work beside Saban for eight years as a defensive coordinator was the Tide winning four national championships.
It’s how college football works; the theory of “more” is always in effect.
Smart set a standard for himself and the program when Georgia reached the national championship game in 2017.
The Bulldogs have won three straight SEC East Division titles, and a fourth straight will be the minimum expectation this season.
An SEC Championship Game win would be pleasing.
But if Georgia doesn’t win the national championship with eight starters back off the nation’s No. 1-ranked defense, there will be disappointment and questions about the staff moving forward.
It has been noted Smart didn’t give two of his assistants raises this past offseason: secondary coach Charlton Warren and receivers coach Cortez Hankton.
The Bulldogs staff is hungry, to be sure, and as Smart said in his infamous video, he wants to eat.
Legion of Zoom
Lanning made it clear he and his defensive staff talked to representatives from all 32 NFL teams at some point or another this past offseason.
“It was a lot of fun as a staff to be able to connect with somebody that might be on the other side of the world, whether it be the San Diego Chargers or a high school coach in Florida,” Lanning said.
It’s worth noting the Chargers would be the team for Lanning to reference when one considers Gus Bradley is that franchises defensive coordinator.
Bradley helped build Seattle’s so-called “Legion of Boom” and is a highly-regarded defensive guru.
It’s up to Lanning and Smart to figure out how much of the NFL expertise the Georgia defenders can handle.
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“You know, and I think the key to all this is when you have more time you want to make sure that you’re careful not to do too much,” Lanning said, “because ultimately it still comes down to tackling, block destruction and finishing on plays.”
Indeed, and it also come down to how a coaching staff finishes the season.
Lanning, now a member of the million-dollar coaches club, finds himself with a new set of expectations.
At Georgia, having the best defense isn’t enough.
“Ultimately for us,” Lanning said, “it’s about wins.”
And to be clear, it’s also about championships.
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