ATHENS – It’s early, but Georgia’s secondary is proving Kirby Smart right. That’s not good.
This offseason, Georgia’s new head coach talked down the secondary he inherited. Yes, it ranked first in the nation last year in pass defense, but there were caveats: The competition wasn’t great. The defensive backs were “protected” by good pass rushers. The corners weren’t great in coverage.
Four games in, this is where it stands: The Bulldogs rank 10th in the SEC in pass defense. They’re coming off being torched by Ole Miss, were burned by Missouri for one half, and probably got lucky against North Carolina. That’s despite returning basically every key contributor.
So has the secondary taken a step back this year, despite having basically the same personnel?
“No, not at all,” senior safety Quincy Mauger said. “I just feel like we need to focus on the little things.”
“There’s way too many variables just to compare last year to this year,” junior safety Aaron Davis said. “We had a different staff. Every team is a new team every year. I feel like last year is last year and this year we are what we are.”
There’s also a huge difference in the competition.
Georgia has faced three of the nation’s top 17 passing offenses: No. 4 Missouri (391.3 yards per game, No. 13 North Carolina (334) and Ole Miss (326.5). Nicholls State, which has faced two FBS teams, is averaging 156.3 passing yards per game.
Last year, when Georgia ranked first nationally in pass defense, it didn’t face a single team that ranked in the top 60 nationally in passing yards.
Smart was asked this week whether he thought the struggles were a result of the teams they’ve played or a legitimate concern.
“I think it’s a little bit of both,” Smart said, citing the three FBS teams they’ve played. “It is what it is in this league. You’re going to play good teams week in and out. Now I know some teams are better than others. And then we played two pretty good passing teams here in a row, and now we’ve got another one coming in that can do it all to you. I don’t get into that part of it rather than what is it we need to do to get better. We’ve got to show improvement, and that’s what we’re challenging these guys to do.”
Missouri burned Georgia with quick passes. Ole Miss did some of that, but quarterback Chad Kelly also had plenty of time to throw. And after getting the benefit of a good pass rush last year, Georgia’s secondary isn’t getting it this year. That’s left Georgia’s secondary often on an island, and at Ole Miss that meant height mismatches.
Tennessee also has tall receivers. Georgia knows it can’t just let the quarterback and receiver play throw and catch, as Ole Miss did.
“Yeah, of course,” Davis agreed. “It’s all about getting your hands on them, disrupting the timing, so that the ball – you might have to force the quarterback to throw into a tight window. Make a perfect throw, something like that.
“And even then it’s about competing when the ball is in the air.”
Smart and Mel Tucker, the secondary coach he brought over from Alabama, have also tinkered with the lineup.
Maurice Smith, the graduate transfer from Alabama, has started the first four games at nickel back. Rico McGraw, who started five games as a freshman last year, has hardly played. Davis and Mauger have alternated at safety, with Davis getting first-team snaps again this week.
Juwuan Briscoe, who started the first four games at cornerback, and two games last year as a freshman, has been benched in favor of fellow sophomore Deandre Baker.
“There were a couple times in the North Carolina game we almost put him in,” Smart said of Baker. “He’s been right on the brink of going in, and just never got a chance to, and had a chance against Ole Miss on Saturday. He did a good job. He didn’t get a lot of contested balls thrown his way, so it’s not one that he played so great, he just didn’t get tried. We’re trying those guys every day out there right now, testing them, making sure they can make plays ….
“We’re pleased with where he is. He’s got to go out and show it in a game.”
That goes for everyone in the secondary.