ATHENS — Kirby Smart liked the progress the Georgia defensive line made up front last week enough to share warm sentiments.

“I would not trade our group for any group in the country, in terms of defensive line groups,” Smart said at his press conference last Tuesday.

“As a collective whole, we have got a group that can get the job done.”

Smart noted last spring Georgia lacked the “train wreckers” and “havoc makers” of past seasons.

Fact is, the Bulldogs’ fans had been treated to two of the most talented defensive lines in recent college football history in 2021 and 2022.

The 2021 unit was spearheaded by Outland Trophy winner Jordan Davis and No. 1 overall pick Travon Walker, who were two of the five eventual first-round picks in the rotation.

Two of the other first-round picks, Jalen Carter and Nolan Smith, carried that incredible dominance in 2022 and led the nation in run defense before last year’s group dropped to No. 18 in the country.

The 2023 defense, however, gave up some eye-popping run totals at times: 132 yards to FCS school UT-Martin in the opener, another 219 at Auburn on the ground and then 151 to Missouri and another 205 to Georgia Tech in the regular-season finale.

Consider: Georgia had only given up more than 132 yards three times in the previous 47 games dating back ot the 2020 season.

Then, Alabama out-rushed UGA in the game that mattered most, the TIde’s 27-24 SEC title game win that snapped the Bulldogs’ record-breaking 29-game win streak and eliminated Georgia’s run for what would have been a first-of-its-kind three-peat.

Smart dropped a hint on Tuesday that linebacker play had something to do with the drop-off in run defense last season.

“It is not about them (D-Line) sometimes,” Smart said. “It is about the guy behind them making sure he sticks his nose in the right place, too.”

Smart indicated that he wanted to clear up any misconception that his defensive line room is inadequate, even if it’s not among the most legendary.

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“We are not as good as we were that year (2021), but we are better than we have been a lot of other years,” said Smart, who’s counting on veterans Nazir Stackhouse and Warren Brinson to lead the group.

“They are going against one of the best three or four offensive lines we’ll go against all season each and every day,” Smart said. “Iron sharpens iron. We are getting better by who we go against.”

Indeed, Smart had told ESPN just one week before that “Either we’re maybe a little weaker on the defensive line or we’re really good on the offensive line. The glaring thing I’ve seen at practices is that the offensive line has done a really good job. That’s not to say we were subpar on the defensive line last year. We just weren’t great.”

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Smart provided more clarity this week when sharing that upside is there, with young players like Jordan Hall, Christen Miller, Jamaal Jarrett and incoming transfer Xzavier McLoud.

“I am pleased with where we are, (but) we have to get better,” Smart said. “We have players on our defensive line who can get better. The worst feeling as a coach is when you don’t have players that you can get better. There are coaches all across the country right now on defensive line who don’t have one 300-pounder.

“We’ve got several. We just have to continue to get them better and execute at a higher level.”

Smart said the defensive line didn’t measure up to his high goals in the last scrimmage, but again, it was facing one of the more powerful offensive lines Georgia has had in recent memory.

“We affected the quarterback, had some disruptive sacks, did not probably play the run as well as I’d like to,” Smart said. “As high as my expectation is in terms of making goals of 3.3 or less per carry. We’ve had much more dominant scrimmages from a defensive line than we had on Saturday.

“We had some guys nicked up and banged up. I was pleased with the tenacity and the way both groups at the line of scrimmage approached it.”

Georgia has another closed scrimmage leading up to the annual G-Day Game at 1 p.m. on Saturday, April 13.