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Curtis Compton/AJC
Don't underestimate the potential of Georgia's 2017 defense and the imprint that coordinator Mel Tucker is making on it.

Seeing shades of ‘Junkyard Dawg’ in Georgia’s defense

ATHENS – At the end of the day, it was just a snapshot, just a tiny glimpse really. But if there was one thing I took away from the open practice Saturday at Sanford Stadium, it was this: Georgia’s defense ought to be pretty darn salty this year.

It’s too early to predict the return of the Junkyard Dawg defenses of old. But I see some real potential here for Georgia being dominant on that side of the ball. They certainly were against the Bulldogs’ offense on Saturday, and I truly believe that had more to do with the resident strengths of the defense than Georgia’s deficiencies on the other side of the ball.

Even coach Kirby Smart, who oversaw some of the most dominant defenses in the country annually at Alabama, admits to liking a lot of what he’s seeing from this bunch so far.

“There’s more of a stoutness, more competition, a lot more good players that are competing against each other,” he said. “What’s happening is the quality of your 3s [third-string players], the quality of your 2s, has gone up a little more, and we are seeing really good competition.”

That was certainly evident on Saturday. There was penetration from the defensive line, both in the interior and on the edge. There was no getting outside of linebackers Roquan Smith and Natrez Patrick on the perimeter. Speed in general is evident all over the field. The Bulldogs’ blitz packages look particularly menacing and unpredictable.

What probably doesn’t get talked about enough with regard to the defense is the asset Georgia has in Mel Tucker. Yes, Smart still has his hands in the defense, but it’s Tucker, the defensive coordinator, who is implementing the system and making the calls in practices and games. And based on his own experiences, he knows what a premier defense looks like, too.

Tucker had a hand in preparing defenses that won national championships at Ohio State and Alabama. He also had some top-10 units in the NFL with the Jacksonville Jaguars, where he was defensive coordinator and interim coach.

Speaking with reporters over the weekend, Tucker wasn’t interested in comparing any of those successful squads of old with this new one. But I did sense a confident air about the Bulldogs’ defensive chief in talking about his charges.

“We have a lot of returning starters [10], so the expectations are going to be high,” Tucker said before Saturday’s practice. “The expectations are going to be high here at Georgia every year. It’s really not about that. It’s about living up to our standard, how we want to play and reaching our full potential.”

I’m not sure what all Tucker is seeing, but I’m seeing a LOT of potential. But I understand his reservations. There is, after all, some fixing to do on that side of the ball.

Georgia’s defense was pretty good last year, too, except when it got backed up inside the 20. The Bulldogs were deplorable in that area, known as the red zone, and ranked 121st nationally in that statistic. Specifically, opponents scored 90.7 percent of the time they got there, including a gaudy 32 touchdowns on 43 trips.

This whole camp is pretty much being dedicated to making sure that number comes down considerably.

“It is not acceptable,” Smart said. “That in itself affects scoring defense. If you take 10 of those opportunities and hold them to a field goal, that’s four points per attempt, that’s 40 points. It changes your entire complexion.”

Georgia also has to get better at pressuring the passer and forcing sacks. The return of seniors Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy should help in that regard, along with those blitz packages I referenced. But if the Bulldogs can produce just a modicum of improvement in each of those areas, they should move up from where they were in the league last year, which was fourth in total defense and fifth in scoring in the SEC.

To be clear, the aim is to be No. 1 in both of those stats.

“We talk about, ‘What is our identity going to be this year?’” Tucker said. “Every year you have a new team. It’s a new defense. We’re working to be at our best.”

Their best ought to be very good. Maybe Junkyard Dawgish.