ATHENS — Georgia’s defense made remarkable strides in its first season under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. The Bulldogs ranked fourth in the country with a turnover margin of plus-16 and finished fifth in the SEC in scoring defense. His unit posted two shutouts and held Top 25 teams Missouri and Auburn to a combined seven points.
Despite the fact he lost five starters from that unit, Pruitt expects his defense to be better this season.
“We lost somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 or 12 players, but we added 31. So we feel like there’s a difference in the talent level,” Pruitt said. “We lost some really good football players but we’ve added some depth and we’re excited that.”
In addition to the infusion of talent, Pruitt has now been in place as Georgia’s defensive chief for 19 months. That extra year under the belt has made a big difference for Pruitt and his pupils.
“This time last year, the freshmen were getting here the first day and our older guys didn’t really understand what we were trying to get accomplished exactly either,” Pruitt said. “But they learned it and that helped create a standard around here and it’s kind of followed through with the guys are coming back (this year). Our older guys have done a really good job this summer teaching the younger guys.
“I’ve sat in meetings here the last few days and we’re really a lot further ahead than we were this time last year.”
There was some doubt among the veterans a year ago. Not anymore. They believe in his concepts.
“He’s done that and so much more,” senior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “He’s developed us a lot as young men, on the field and off the field. He’s really helped me a lot with coverages and other things I’ve had trouble with in the past. He’s knows how to find how a player needs to be coached and finds ways to best implement him.”
There are still a lot of issues to address. The Bulldogs lost a pair of tackling machines to the NFL in inside linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, who combined for more than 400 tackles the last two seasons. They’re also having to replace the entire starting defensive front.
Right now the replacements on the line will have to come from a group that includes four seniors, a sophomore, a redshirt freshmen and six true freshmen.
Many of those freshmen came highly recommended, however, including the nation’s top-ranked prospect in defensive tackle Trent Thompson and four-star ends Michael Barnett and Jonathan Ledbetter. Each was in the two-deep rotation of Tuesday’s first practice.
“It’s a hard place to play as a freshman, but we’re going to rely on some of those guys,” Pruitt said. “The thing about it is, the guys we’ve got coming back don’t have a whole lot of experience. So it’s going to be open competition, it’s going to be good competition and I think it will make everybody better.”
Clearly there’s a lot of buzz about Thompson. At 6-4, 313 pounds, he looks physically ready to compete in the SEC. But Pruitt is determined to beat back the hype.
“What we don’t want to do with anybody in this class is create unrealistic expectations,” Pruitt said. “I just want those guys to do their best every day. As a fan base, when you start recruiting a lot of really good football players, you put these expectations out there, and the reality is, there’s not a lot of true freshmen than play anywhere across the league. Every year a few teams have two or three; we’ll have two or three this year. Probably if you’re playing with a whole lot of true freshmen you’re probably not very good.”
That said, he admits that Thompson can probably do it.
“Every year somewhere across the country somebody’s ranked the No. 1 player,” he said. “But, you know, it probably don’t matter when we go ought to practice this afternoon or we play the first game. I don’t think when they flip the coin they’re going to ask him what he was ranked last year.
“So, he’s kind of one of those guys. We’ve talked to him about it and we’ve prepped him about it. What we want him to do is get better every day. Focus on that.”
Meanwhile, Pruitt said he’ll focus on making sure his defense plays more consistently. He doesn’t want to have more aberrations like the 418-yard rushing debacle against Florida or the 38-point outburst by South Carolina.
“We’re going to focus on consistency, on doing it over and over again,” Pruitt said. “There were some times last year that we played the way we want to play. But there were times in the year we were kind of like a roller coaster. We’ve got to fix this. We want to focus on us. It’s about us and I think we understand that. It’s the way you practice and prepare every day and that’s our goal coming out of this camp.”