Former NFL star: UGA pass rush ‘one of the biggest stories of this year’
Georgia was one of the stingiest defenses in the country in 2019, but there’s still room for improvement for the upcoming season.
The Bulldogs allowed the fewest points per game nationally (12.6), and the third-fewest yards per game (275.7). However, UGA’s pass rush didn’t fare as well. Georgia was tied for 46th with 31 sacks.
Former Atlanta Falcon Chuck Smith bills himself as a “pass rush specialist.” He’s worked as a personal coach for some current Bulldogs, and is also helping former UGA defensive linemen Tyler Clark and David Marshall with their NFL draft preparations. He knows the intricacies of the front seven positions as well as anyone and Smith made an appearance on DawgNation Daily this week to discuss what needs to happen for Georgia to produce more sacks.
“I think it’s a big issue with Georgia,” Smith said. “Go watch film… and count in a game how often you see a guy use a pass rush move [such as] a swipe with two hands, a spin, a long arm [and] not just a bull rush… Improving the [pass rush] culture means you’ve got to learn moves.”
UGA coach Kirby Smart seemingly began last season hoping for a more impactful defense. He said last year before the start of spring practice that the pass rush would be an emphasis.
“I’m hoping to get some more pass rush, we’re trying to increase the pass rush and tackles for loss, we’re always trying to give people negative plays,” Smart said. “The only way to get really good at that is practice and be aggressive and try to come after folks.
“This year we don’t feel like we’re as young on defense. We feel like we’ve got some guys coming back that can contribute, some guys coming back that played and that may allow us to be more aggressive.”
Results aside, if Smart felt confident enough in his defense before last season to want to dial up the pass pressure, then it stands to reason he could possibly feel even stronger about that point heading into this season.
UGA brings back a lot of experience on defense — including a deep secondary featuring a possible All-American safety in Richard LeCounte, former five-star cornerback Tyson Cambell, All-SEC cornerback Eric Stokes and more former four-star recruits than can be listed.
Defensive backs — like the ones UGA has — who can run step for step with receivers, disrupt passing lanes and force the quarterback to hold the ball longer could be the missing piece to help the Bulldogs generate more sacks.
“As a pass rush develops, there’s nothing like having guys in the back [of a defense] that can hold their own,” Smith said
The Bulldogs might also benefit from a coaching staff that’s possibly more committed to the pass rush than ever.
“I’ll tell you one person who’s big on pass rush, and that’s [defensive coordinator Dan] Lanning,” Smith said. “I’m really high on him, and the evolution of [defensive line coach] Trey Scott.”
That will be good news for most UGA fans. The high mark for the Bulldogs for sacks during the Smart era was 34 in 2017. However, UGA has had fewer than 30 sacks twice in the last four years.
By comparison, Clemson — which has been in the College Football Playoff in each of the last five seasons — has averaged 49 sacks per season over that span.
Smith says that UGA could possibly soon match that feat.
“Seeing the passion of Coach Scott, and believing and understanding what Dan Lanning is about, I think one of the biggest stories of this year is going to be Georgia’s pass rush,” Smith said.
The talent isn’t in question.
Redshirt sophomore linebacker Azeez Ojulari led UGA with 5.5 sacks last season, and seems poised for an even greater impact this year. Defensive linemen Jordan Davis and Travon Walker — as well as linebackers Nolan Smith, Jermaine Johnson and Quay Walker — tied for second on the team with 2.5 sacks and all return looking for more this year.
The expectation is that Lanning will utilize the experience this group gained playing together last year to wreak havoc on opposing quarterbacks this year.
“They’ve been young guys, and now they’re in their prime,” Chuck Smith said. “After this year, there’s no more excuses… He’s got some pieces that have matured and he can turn them loose as pass rushers.”