ATHENS — For all the talk about quarterbacks in the spring and summer, the key to Georgia’s football team achieving its high aspirations this fall may be on the other side of the ball.
The Bulldogs enter the season, which kicks off at noon Saturday against Louisiana-Monroe in Sanford Stadium, looking for a more consistent defense than the one that improved in many areas last season but nevertheless allowed an average of 35.3 points in three losses and a combined 817 yards rushing to Florida and Georgia Tech.
Defensive players said this week they expect fans to see a dramatic difference in the unit in its second season under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
“I think we’ve made some great strides as a defense as a whole,” defensive tackle Sterling Bailey said. “Being under Coach Pruitt’s defense for a year, knowing what he wants, I just think it’s going to be a really good year for us.”
For the most part, the defense progressed last season, playing well enough to get Pruitt a raise from $850,000 to $1.3 million a year. The unit finished fifth in the SEC in scoring defense compared to 10th the year before, contributed to a plus-16 turnover margin (fourth best nationally) compared to minus-seven the year before, shut out Missouri and held Auburn to seven points.
But the inconsistency exposed in losses to South Carolina, Florida and Tech left much room for further improvement.
“I feel like in Year 2 under Pruitt, guys have a better understanding of what the standard is, a better understanding of some of the plays,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “I just feel like we have a broader knowledge base about the defense. We’re getting to where guys know what multiple positions are doing and not just what you’re doing. We have a lot better understanding of the coverages and things like that.”
Jenkins expects all of that to translate to more consistency from game to game.
“I hope it would,” he said with a smile. “Otherwise, all those practices and long, hot days in camp would have been for nothing. But now it’s up to us to make the plays.”
Improvement is needed against the run and on third down. By rushing for 418 yards, Florida was able to score 38 points against Georgia last season while attempting only six passes and completing three. Both Florida and Georgia Tech converted 50 percent of their third downs against the Bulldogs.
“Having that year under your belt, now you don’t have to think so much about, ‘Hey, what should I do?’” Bailey said. “Now you get the play, you line up, and you just go out there and play, have fun.”
The defense got a good start on 2015 when Jenkins and fellow linebacker Leonard Floyd passed on their first opportunities to enter the NFL draft. Both were subsequently voted preseason All-SEC, Jenkins first-team and Floyd second. They combined for 11 sacks last season, and Lorenzo Carter, then a freshman, had 4 1/2.
“One of the main goals (the linebackers) have is really just to be dominant,” Jenkins said. “We just want to be a force up there and want people to respect us. When we see one person make a play, we want to thrive off that and keep it going.”
The defense also is looking for continued progress in the secondary, where young players Aaron Davis, Malkom Parrish, Quincy Mauger and Dominick Sanders got valuable experience last season.
“It was a really big jump for me from last year to this year,” said safety Sanders, who started all 13 games as a freshman and intercepted three passes. “I feel like this will be a good year for me because my mistakes I made last year, I learned from them. Even though coach relied on me last year, I feel like with a lot more experience this year I’ll be more comfortable.”
The defense’s goal for the opening game, Bailey said, is “setting the tone, showing everybody that all the hard work we put in this offseason isn’t going to waste, just making sure we start this season off on the right foot.”
Then everyone can get back to talking about the quarterbacks.