Smart: Georgia ‘protected’ its secondary last year

Georgia defensive backs Dominick Sanders (24) and Aaron Davis (35) chase after eventual Heisman winner Derrick Henry last October.

ATHENS — Georgia returns every starter from a secondary that ranked first in the nation – not just the SEC, but the nation – in pass defense last year. So of course new head coach Kirby Smart is going to say everything’s great back there, it will be the strength of the defense, the strength of the team, right?

Of course not.

Smart, evidently having watched film of last year, feels Georgia’s previous staff “protected” the secondary, and that the Bulldogs need more “cover guys” to make the defense work.

“A lot of the secondary (is) back,” Smart said of a group that includes safeties Dominick Sanders and Quincy Mauger, and cornerbacks Malkom Parrish, Aaron Davis, Rico McGraw and Juwuan Briscoe, who combined for 53 starts last year. But then Smart, speaking Monday night at the Macon Touchdown Club, pumped the brakes.

“They didn’t put their secondary in tough situations very often,” he said. “They protected those guys. There weren’t a lot of cover guys back there. So we need to get it to where we have a lot of cover guys and we can pressure more. If we can’t then we’ve gotta be careful on third down.”

It’s possible that Smart is engaging in a bit of psychology with the defensive backs, trying to head off any complacency. Even if you account for having played two triple-option teams, which helped keep opposing pass numbers down, Georgia did finish eighth nationally in third-down defense, another key measure.

But there is another stat that backs up Smart: The rankings of the passing offenses Georgia faced. The highest-ranked was Alabama, which was only 62nd in the nation. Putting it in a way that should make Georgia fans understand, and perhaps cringe: Five were statistically worse than Georgia’s own anemic passing offense, which ranked 104th. And a sixth was Southern, an FCS school.

Smart does grant that Georgia’s defense “played good last year, played hard, they were competitive,” under Jeremy Pruitt, who replaced Smart as Alabama’s defensive coordinator. But Smart seems to attribute much of it to outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, whose careers have moved on.

“Jordan and Leonard, those guys will be hard to replace on third down. So that’s going to affect the game for us,” Smart said. “We’ve got to do a good job of getting off the field on third down. Well those two guys, they won a lot of third downs for Georgia the last few years. They’re gone. Somebody else is going to have to step up in that role.”

Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy, a pair of rising juniors, are expected to move into those roles. But Smart didn’t name them. The only defensive lineman he named in his speech was Trent Thompson.

Smart also offered a glimpse of his overriding defensive philosophy, perhaps influenced by the last game he coached in.

“We’ve gotta be able to execute and play fast. That’s the one thing I really believe in defensively: Be simple, play fast, because these teams will go tempo on you super fast,” Smart said. “As seen in the national championship, Clemson, they went hyper-speed, they went super-speed. People want to do that to slow you down and make you predictable. And we don’t ever want to be predictable.”

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