Georgia championship hopes rely on reloading secondary, Mel Tucker breakdown explains why
ATHENS — It will be hard for Georgia fans to take their eyes off the Bulldogs’ offense in the G-Day Game, but the secondary should be the primary focus.
The Bulldogs ability to reload in the defensive backfield appears key to a national title run.
Three of the four College Football Playoff teams last season finished No. 1 or No. 2 in their respective conferences in pass efficiency defense.
Georgia has produced the No. 1 run-stopping defense in the nation the past two seasons, and that doesn’t figure to change with Jordan Davis, Devonte Wyatt, Julian Rochester and Jalen Carter returning to anchor the interior defensive line.
But as Michigan State head coach Mel Tucker explained, what happens on the back end of the defense is pivotal against elite spread teams UGA figures to have to get through to win a championship.
“The game has changed with the RPOs and spreads,” said Tucker, who was Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2016-2018. “What it does, is it puts a lot of pressure on your defensive backs.”
UGA coach Kirby Smart inherited a talented defensive backfield from Mark Richt when he took over the program before the 2016 season, and the Bulldogs have recruited well to the secondary ever since.
Perhaps even too well.
Cornerback DJ Daniel, whose preseason ankle injury put him a step behind and out of the starting lineup last season, decided to pass up the chance to come back and start. He, too, is headed to the NFL.
Preseason All-American safety Richard LeCounte also decided not to return, as did reliable nickleback Mark Webb.
When you add it up, between the NFL attrition and four scholarship players who have transferred out of the secondary since the end of the 2019 season, it makes for a major reload.
Georgia seems to have the front-line talent in the secondary. Young corners Jalen Kimber, Daran Branch and Kelee Ringo are ready to compete with returning junior Ameer Speed to fill big shoes at cornerback.
UGA also signed incoming defensive back prospects Nyland Green, Kamari Lassiter, David Daniel and Javon Bullard in the 2021 class.
But the Bulldogs will be shy on experience, barring graduate transfer or NCAA portal additions, and the depth is in question.
Tucker made it clear it comes down to talent and football skills in the secondary, and it will be paramount.
“Whether they are corners or safeties, they have to be able to cover one on one,” Tucker said. “You can’t put those linebackers in run-pass conflict. Those guys have to read to the run, and if they decide to throw, you are basically one on one.
“So it puts a premium on having versatile defensive backs that can cover man to man in the slot inside, and also do a great job in run protection, perimeter runs and on bubbles (routes) and jailbreak screens.”
UGA lists its base formation as a 3-4. But have observed that opponents’ personnel packages have dictated more 3-3-5 looks and six defensive back alignments.
“Those (Stars) are valuable, playing nickel with five defensive backs, dime with six defensive backs, that’s normal nowadays,” Tucker said. “You need to be two or three deep at the star position or at the dime position.”
Indeed, many UGA fans groaned when Divaad Wilson transferred to UCF following the 2019 season, and more recently, Tyrique Stevenson headed to Miami, Fla.
Tucker and Smart — both collegiate DBs, Tucker at Wisconsin, Smart an All-SEC pick at UGA — worked extremely well coaching together at Alabama and Georgia. They most often shared the same philosophies, and certainly when it came to what they expect out of their defensive backs.
“It puts a lot of onus on those guys back there to understand there’s no such thing as a cover corner anymore, you need a football player,” Tucker said.
“You need a guy that understands you got to stop the run first, earn the right to rush the passer, and get into these exotic pressures.”
Georgia did just that last season, leading the SEC and finishing 11th in the nation with 3.2 sacks per game.
The question is, will the Bulldogs have the sort of run support from the secondary to put teams in those passing downs? And, once it is third-and-long, can Georgia have the sort of pass coverage from its defensive backs that lead to sacks?
UGA spring practice starts March 16 leading up to the April 17 G-Day Game.
Georgia football offseason