ATHENS – One injury, and some time to think about it, can change a lot. At the outset of Georgia football’s preseason camp, inside linebacker Natrez Patrick set the bar high when asked about expectations for his defense.
“Domination,” he said. “It’s a bunch of mature guys. So the entire defensive standard is nothing less than domination.”
Less than three weeks later, another “d” word was being thrown around, this time by head coach Kirby Smart when asked about the loss of Malkom Parrish to a broken bone in his foot.
“It’s not doomsday,” said Smart, tamping down the importance with one sentence, then inflating it again with the next three. “We could sit around and cry and whine about it. But it’s not a position we’re real deep at right now. It’s not a great situation but that’s what football is, guys.”
Parrish could return soon after the season opener, though surgery for a broken bone doesn’t sound like something you return from that quickly. In the meantime, Georgia is left without its most experienced cornerback, and now goes from starting one new player on defense, to two — both in the secondary.
And that secondary is an area that has a lot to prove before Georgia’s defense can dominate ths season. And that secondary might be a bigger concern than people have noticed.
Parrish’s injury resulted in one freshman playing with the first team, at least temporarily. That was Richard LeCounte. Another freshman, Deangelo Gibbs, remains in competition for the nickelback spot. An SEC rookie, sophomore J.R. Reed, is the favorite to start at nickelback or safety. And other freshmen are competing to be in the two-deep at cornerback.
Exciting proposition, perhaps, for some people. A worrisome situation for coaches and for people who truly know football.
When Juwuan Briscoe and Rico McGraw transferred after their careers didn’t work out at Georgia, that put the Bulldogs in the position of having to rely on freshmen.
Fans always love giving the rookies a shot. Well, they thought that back in 2013, and look what happened: the secondary struggled. Tray Matthews, Shaq Wiggins, Brendan Langley and Quincy Mauger were freshmen who started at least half the season. Sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons was in his first season as a starter.
Georgia’s pass defense ranked 59th nationally that year, and ninth in the SEC.
HOW GOOD WAS LAST YEAR’S SECONDARY?
Let’s go to the stat sheet, football fans.
Georgia had the 16th-best pass defense in the country, at least going by passing yards allowed. Pretty good. But how good? For that, judge the competition – opponents’ passing offenses – and how they did the rest of the year.
Georgia opponents fared 33 passing yards worse against Georgia than their season average – that’s including the yardage they had against Georgia in the season average total. That’s an impressive stat for the Bulldogs.
But on a game-by-game basis, it was a near-even split. Seven opponents had fewer passing yards against Georgia than their season average, but six had more, and in those six games, Georgia lost three of then (Ole Miss, Florida and Georgia Tech) and nearly lost another (Missouri).
The quality of the opponent factor also isn’t very impressive: The average passing offense rank of Georgia’s FBS opponents last year was 71st nationally, with only four in the top 30.
Georgia’s defense did a great job shutting down the high-octane passing offenses of North Carolina (156 passing yards) and TCU (146), but couldn’t hold in check Missouri (376) or Ole Miss (330).
The takeaway: Georgia’s secondary needs to be more consistent.
SO WILL IT BE?
The good news: Georgia’s schedule on paper doesn’t feature a lot of those high-octane offenses.
Georgia’s opponents in 2016 had an average pass offense ranking of 71. This year’s opponents had an average pass ranking of 74.4.
A few potential asterisks in the wrong direction: Auburn has a new quarterback, whereas last year Sean White appeared very limited when he played Georgia. South Carolina switched to freshman quarterback Jake Bentley after the Georgia game. And laugh if you will, but third-week opponent Samford was third in passing offense at the FCS level last year.
Ultimately, though, it probably comes down to how Georgia plays, and what kind of improvement it makes. And much of it could be other factors, especially this: Does the pass-rush improve and protect the secondary more?
Dominick Sanders and Aaron Davis were two freshman starters in 2014, when despite youth and a new coach (Jeremy Pruitt), the pass defense was the second-best in the SEC. Now as seniors they will anchor a more experienced secondary, especially when Parrish returns, but still one with plenty of concerns.
How well those concerns are answered may very well determine whether Georgia’s defense is truly dominant, or whether on a few too many plays, it’s doomsday.