ATHENS, Ga. — Here’s the bottom line on Kirby Smart: The Georgia football coach is like most coaches. He’s not going to brag on his team in the spring. Spring is a time for criticism. It’s a time to “get tough” and “get physical” and “get better,” which is pretty much all you’ll hear coming out of Smart’s mouth these days.
But with regard to the Bulldogs defense, I think Smart’s comments this week pretty much validate what I’ve been seeing and saying all along. That is, I believe Georgia’s 2017 defensive unit has a chance to be pretty doggone good.
Of course, on this particular subject Smart is an expert. During his eight-year stint as defensive coordinator at Alabama — he was defensive backs and assistant head coach one year — his defenses were ranked among the nation’s top 10 pretty much every year. That includes 2011, when the Crimson Tide led the nation in all five major defense categories.
So he’s knows what a good defense looks like. Asked after Tuesday’s practice, the Bulldogs’ fourth of the spring, if he thought this season’s unit resembled a championship-caliber defense, Smart harrumphed.
“Actually, right now I don’t,” he said. Then he launched into one of those “gotta get better” rants like coaches typically do.
“What I see is some guys that are kind of complacent and guys that are comfortable in their roles,” Smart said said. “Meaning, ‘I’ve started here for two years; I’m comfortable in my role; I am a leader on this team; I’m comfortable in that.’ They’re not challenging themselves to get better. We go out and do a two-minute (drill) and the offense scores twice. Whether it’s a field goal or a touchdown to win, they scored twice against a defense that every single guy that’s on that field was playing last year with the exception at star.
“So I’m disappointed in that. I don’t think there’s enough of a sense of urgency for that defense.”
Sounds a little alarming, doesn’t it? But if you do a little research, you’ll see that Smart typically said the same kinds of things about some of Alabama’s stalwart defenses. In the spring and all throughout the season. It’s what they do.
Playing it smart
That said, I don’t want to sit here today and anoint Georgia’s 2017 defense as all-world. I’m sure they do have a long way to go meet Smart’s standards and expectations. I’m sure they are flawed in a lot of ways.
Smart drilled down on one specific area of needed improvement at the TD Club meeting the other night.
“Defensively we’ve got to be better in the red area,” he said. “We didn’t have enough tackles for loss, we didn’t have enough negative plays. We’ve got a big emphasis on that this offseason. How can we get more negative plays?”
But otherwise, I’ve got to tell you, there is a lot there to like.
Obviously the biggest deal for this group is experience. The Bulldogs have a lot of players that played a lot of ball. In all, 10 starters return from the 2016 team, including the top five tacklers — linebackers Roquan Smith, Natrez Patrick and Davin Bellamy, defensive lineman Trent Thompson and safety Aaron Davis. But it goes deeper than that, quite literally.
There are a lot of players that played a lot. There are 28 lettermen back on defense.
That defense picked off 15 passes a year ago, including three by ball-hawking safety Dominick Sanders, who has 12 in his career. The Bulldogs were second in the SEC in turnover margin — they were a plus-8 — and were among the SEC’s top 5 in the four major defensive categories — total yards, scoring, rushing and passing.
Deep Dawgs defense
But the most important area of any defense in any year is what it has on the line. It’s here that Georgia truly appears special. Thompson’s medical emergency in February is certainly disconcerting. But all indications are that Thompson — a rising junior who was overall and defensive MVP in the Liberty Bowl — had his issues handled and will be ready to get back in class and on the field this summer.
In addition to Thompson, there are the elder statesmen including John Atkins; up-and-comers Julian Rochester, Jonathan Ledbetter, Michail Carter and Tyler Clark; and versatile plug-and-plays DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle and David Marshall.
And, of course, the return of seniors Bellamy and Lorenzo Carter at outside linebacker, is no small thing. Never mind the overused statistic of sacks — spread offenses and the age of run-pass options just aren’t going to allow as many — those two have put almost certain NFL careers on hold. And they have talented backups in D’Andre Walker and Chauncey Manac.
But don’t get Smart started on all that.
Why Kirby is cautious
“We’ve got a lot of players coming back,” he acknowledged at the Athens Touchdown Club the other night. “But somebody told me a long time ago, if you’ve got 10 guys coming back who went 8-5, they went 8-5. So, I mean, you’ve got to improve those guys; you’ve got to get those guys better.”
And they should. Just through natural progression and the maturation process, most of those guys should be better now than they were a year ago. And that’s what makes this 2017 Georgia team so intriguing to forecast.
It has long been said that a strong defense is the ultimate equalizer in football. If the Bulldogs can somehow coax improvement out of their special teams and somehow duct-tape together some semblance of a serviceable offensive line, one that can give Nick Chubb and Sony Michel room to run and Jacob Eason time to pass and score in the red zone, there’s reason to believe Georgia can be a pretty good team in 2017.
But don’t bother bringing that up to Smart. Not one-third of the way through spring practice.
“As much as you guys want to say they’re all talented and they’re all this and that, until they actually prove it and they go out on the field and dominate – like a defense with nine returning starters should dominate – I’m not going to be happy with their performance,” Smart said. “They should do that and we haven’t done that in four practices.”
Maybe by Game 1 or 2 they will have earned praise from their coach. Doubtful though.