ATHENS – Davin Bellamy sat in Georgia’s locker room, sounding like a player worried about his defense being in a midseason slump. Except it was the middle of April.
“Really, it’s now about us getting our swagger back, man,” Bellamy said, shaking his head. “And I know I say it a lot, but those guys on the defense, including myself, we know we can make plays. And we know that when push comes to shove that we’ll show up. But right now we’re just getting our swagger back, and playing with each other.”
It’s only spring. Every story along these lines must begin with those three words. It must also point out previous examples of the poor indicators of spring football. This reporter remembers then-defensive coordinator Todd Grantham congratulating his troops at the end of the one G-day. That ensuing season, 2013, saw the defense struggle and Grantham flee to Louisville.
And yet there still does seem to be legitimate worry emanating from Georgia’s locker room about the state of its defense. There was Kirby Smart saying after the second scrimmage that “we either have a long way to go on defense. Or we’re better than I think on offense.” Then there was G-Day, which, while not quite an offensive showcase (except for Jacob Eason against the second-team defense), did not leave Bellamy and other defensive players pleased.
That was without Nick Chubb, and with Sony Michel only getting some perfunctory carries. The first-team offensive line had a good blocking day, on a day the offense went pass-happy.
“This is kinda new for all of us. Just because we’ve got new coaches, new plays,” Bellamy said. “But that’s not an excuse. We have to execute, and we know there’s going to be a lot of pressure on us, because of what we did last year. Even if guys aren’t experienced, we’re going to have to step up to the plate.”
But how much of this feeling that the defense struggled this spring is in comparison to expectations? Georgia’s defense was the strength of the team last year, after all, while the offense struggled. Maybe the offense is just catching up quickly?
Bellamy, not one to hold back, considered the question a couple moments before answering.
“We have a very good offense, I would say, and they give us different looks all the time in practice. But I just feel like we had one of the top defenses last year in the country,” he said. “And we are expecting that this year.”
That’s what Bellamy should be saying. But on closer study, perhaps tamping down the defensive expectations is warranted.
Yes, Georgia returns nearly everyone from a secondary that led the nation in pass defense last year. But Smart has opined that last year’s coaches “protected” the secondary with its pass rush, led by two guys (Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd) who will be picked early in next week’s NFL draft.
Then there’s the front seven, which doesn’t return a single full-time starter from last year. A bunch of players have started off and on. And there’s a ton of talent there, including Bellamy, fellow outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter, and defensive tackle Trent Thompson. But it will be a very young group.
Dominick Sanders, a two-year starter at safety, was asked after G-Day if the secondary needed to carry the defense.
“Yes sir,” he said. “Especially in the back end, it’s like a leadership role of we’ve got to make sure we’re on top of being focused, letting the linebackers know we’ve got their back.”
The change in defensive coaches shouldn’t be too big a hurdle. Jeremy Pruitt was a Nick Saban acolyte. Smart and Mel Tucker worked under Saban last year. The only two holdovers from last year’s staff coach that young front seven: Kevin Sherrer (outside linebackers) and Tracy Rocker (defensive line.)
The projected starters include two former five-star recruits (Thompson and Carter), and a slew of four-star/top 100 national recruits (Jonathan Ledbetter, Natrez Patrick, Bellamy), and a total of seven players who have started at least one game last year.
They just didn’t start those games together yet. Soon they will.
“It’s just that chemistry,” Bellamy said. “That chemistry we had last year as a defense, because we were in one system for a long time. I’ve got all the faith in these guys. We’ve got all the talent in the world, man. Once we eliminate our mental errors and get comfortable back playing with each other, we’ll be fine.”