ATHENS – The last time Kirby Smart gameplanned for a triple option offense, he had the nation’s No. 1 ranked defense, was only giving up 51 rushing yards a game, and then …
Well, let Nick Saban take it from there.
“They ran through our (butts) like (expletive) through a tin horn, man, and we could not stop them,” Saban said last year, recounting Alabama’s game against Georgia Southern in 2011. “Could not stop them. Could not stop them.”
Smart was slightly less expressive when that Georgia Southern game was mentioned on Monday. Even though Alabama won that game, 45-21, it was clear that wasn’t fun for Smart, nor is this week’s preparation for Georgia Tech.
“It’s tough to defend because it’s tough to simulate,” Smart said.
That’s what Georgia’s previous staff had to go through every year since Paul Johnson took over at Georgia Tech in 2008. Smart, while he was guiding Alabama’s defense from 2007 until last season, only had that Georgia Southern game. The Crimson Tide never played Georgia Tech or any of the service academies.
Last year they did face Charleston Southern, an FCS team that used a hybrid system, some triple option but mixing it with some spread. Smart said Monday that game – which Alabama won 56-6 – wasn’t very applicable to what Georgia faces Saturday. But that 2011 game against Georgia Southern is.
On that late November day, Georgia Southern racked up 302 rushing yards, and a total of 341 yards. The Crimson Tide, stacked with future NFL players, still had trouble against an offense that you can watch on film all you want, but is still extremely difficult to follow, using motion, option runs and pitching at the last possible moment.
Something that worries Smart is that a number of his players will be facing it for the first time. A number of freshmen play on Georgia’s defensive line. The starting outside linebackers, Davin Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter, didn’t play much last year at Georgia Tech. The team’s nickel back is Maurice Smith, a transfer from Alabama who didn’t face the triple option during his time there. Natrez Patrick, who started at Georgia Tech last year, has a shoulder injury that has forced him out of the past two games and hasn’t been cleared yet.
“I do think that it’s tougher when you’ve got defenders who have not played against this type of offense,” Smart said, making clear that worries him about his team. “So it’s key when you’ve got guys who have played it before, who understand how fast it really comes.”
Not that Georgia is completely at a loss defending it. Two of its assistant coaches (defensive line coach Tracy Rocker and outside linebackers coach Kevin Sherrer) were around the previous two years for the Georgia Tech game. Smart and his staff met in the offseason with other coaches who have faced the triple option. And the Bulldog players have this week off from classes, so they can fully concentrate on football.
“It’s not like a trick offense. You’re going to know exactly what’s coming to you,” Georgia junior defensive lineman John Atkins said. “You’ve just got to stay in your gap and maintain your technique.”
Since 2010, when Georgia has had Saban proteges running the defense, the Bulldogs have generally done well against the triple option. Last year Jeremy Pruitt’s defense – in its final game under Pruitt – held Georgia Tech to just 194 rushing yards, and 276 total, in a 13-7 Georgia victory. A week earlier Georgia needed overtime to beat Georgia Southern, but Pruitt’s defense again did its part, limiting the Eagles to 233 rushing yards. In that two-game span, the two triple-option teams averaged 4.5 yards per rush against Georgia’s defense.
Now it’s Smart’s turn.
“It’s tough,” he said. “You obviously do a lot in the off-season. First of all, you don’t put it all in one week. We’ve done a lot of off-season study, off-season planning, off-week work, spring practice work, camp work, because as much carryover as we have every week between offenses pretty similar, there’s no carryover this week. That’s the challenge.”