For Georgia to reach potential, young defense must grow up quickly
ATHENS, Ga. -- Of course Mark Richt didn't consider the comparison just. After all, who would? Jordan Jenkins, Georgia's sophomore outside linebacker and pass-rushing prodigy, certainly seems capable of replicating many of the talents Jarvis Jones brought to the Bulldogs' defense the past two seasons. But should the two be mentioned in the same breath at this point?
"Oh, gosh. I don't think that's fair," Richt said. "Jarvis Jones, the guy was an All-American. A first-round draft pick. To say that's what Jordan's going to do ... I know he has that goal. Those are his own expectations to be that type of player. We hope that he plays that way. But I don't know if you can compare them yet."
That's the problem for the Bulldogs. They need to feel comfortable comparing their current defenders to the recently departed ones who have spent this month in NFL training camps. Georgia has a veteran offense capable of playing at a national championship level. But it needs help from a young defense, and it needs that help right now. While other inexperienced units may have first fortnights of the season that will allow young players to slide comfortably into their new roles, the Bulldogs do not. They open at Clemson on Aug. 31 against an offense that averaged 6.3 yards a play and 41 points a game in 2012. A week later, they face South Carolina between the hedges in a clash of SEC East powers. Win both, and any pollster who considers in-season accomplishment more important than preseason reputation would be crazy not to rank Georgia No. 1. Split them either way, and recent history suggests every goal the Bulldogs have for the season remains within reach. Lose both, and the national title dream dies before the first leaf has turned.
A defense high on potential and low on experience will have to prove itself immediately. Jenkins doesn't have to completely mimic Jones, who led the nation with 24.5 tackles for loss last season, but Clemson quarterback Tajh Boyd and South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw need to be sacked for Georgia to succeed. Jenkins seems the most likely candidate to do that sacking. "I'm ready," Jenkins said. "I'm anxious."
Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham seems comfortable with his talent level. In his fourth season in Athens, he finally has a roster full of players who fit the archetypes he prefers. Grantham developed his 3-4 scheme while working alongside Nick Saban and Bill Belichick, so we know his X's and O's are sound. But are the Jimmies and Joes ready? The Bulldogs won't know until next week, when Death Valley will rock and Clemson will try to run triple-digit plays.
Georgia defensive line coach Chris Wilson, who came to Athens this offseason from Mississippi State, was referring to his position group, but he could have been talking about the entire defense when he said this last week: "We've got a lot of unknowns, but we've got some good young talent that we've got to develop, to push to improve."
Given its recruiting hype, this group of defenders might be better than the group it replaces. Last year's defense produced two first-round NFL draft picks (Jones and linebacker Alec Ogletree), two third-rounders (nose tackle John Jenkins and safety Shawn Williams), a fifth-rounder (cornerback Sanders Commings) and two sixth-rounders (linebacker Cornelius Washington and safety Baccari Rambo), but it underachieved at times. While the defense won the Florida game, it struggled against Tennessee and got shredded to the tune of 6.9 yards a carry in the SEC title game against Alabama. (Georgia floundered on both sides of the ball against South Carolina.) While the 2012 group boasted a lot of individual talent, it wasn't always a great defense. This group will enter '13 with much lower expectations, but the team goal remains the same. If the Bulldogs want to reach that goal, this defense will have to declare its greatness immediately.
The last time Clemson's offense took the field, it faced an LSU defense stocked with seven players who were selected in last April's NFL draft. Clemson ran 100 plays, but, accounting for penalties, it actually snapped the ball 107 times. By late in the fourth quarter, LSU defenders were hitting the ground with cramps after almost every play. At first, it seemed the LSU players might have been exaggerating to slow Clemson's pace. But after seeing LSU players after the game, it became clear they had simply been run ragged by Clemson's fast-break offense.
That pace typically has the most deleterious effect on the defensive line. Even teams with deep lines -- such as LSU last year -- struggle to keep a fresh group on the field. Wilson believes he has a deep enough group to weather the barrage of plays, but he hasn't yet decided how to deploy his players. Wilson said he has seven to eight players he'd be comfortable playing in a game. Considering the Bulldogs use three linemen on most plays -- a linebacker usually drops down to the line of scrimmage to add a fourth rusher -- that is exceptional depth. The group also is a bit lighter. No one matches the heft provided last year by the 355-pound John Jenkins and 342-pound Kwame Geathers, but what it lacks in size, the line makes up for in athleticism. "I think they're just normal," Wilson said. "I don't know about small. ... You've got extra large and you've got extra-extra large. We're just extra large." Still, outside of end Garrison Smith, Wilson's group hasn't accumulated a wealth of game snaps. Based on practice, it certainly seems 320-pound redshirt freshman tackle/end John Taylor has a bright future ahead of him, but Wilson can't be sure until the lights and the TV cameras flicker on.
Making the preparation more difficult is a rash of recent injuries. James DeLoach, a presumptive starting outside linebacker who had surgery earlier this month to repair a ligament injury in his thumb, leads a group whose injury-related practice attire has earned not one, but two nicknames from Jenkins. "They used to be the money gang, because all of them were in green," Jenkins said, referring to Georgia's non-contact jersey hue of choice. "Now, they're the club crew," he said, referring to the protective wraps that make the convalescent look like Captain Caveman. Last week, Richt bemoaned the bad luck of safety Corey Moore, who has missed time in camp because of a sprained knee. Moore had impressed coaches with his offseason work ethic and seemed the most likely candidate to fill in for suspended starter Josh Harvey-Clemons against Clemson. "It looks banged up," Richt said last week of his secondary. "You can't hardly get better if you don't practice. You can learn some things by watching, but until you're out there doing it, it's just so hard. ... It's a problem, and playing Clemson does probably make it a little worse."
The good news for the Bulldogs? Clemson may have one of the nation's best offenses, but the young Georgia defenders see a unit that is as good or better at every practice. During camp, Grantham and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have worked together to ensure the inexperienced defense sees certain concepts run by all-everything quarterback Aaron Murray and dynamic backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. "We obviously know the talent they have," Grantham said of the Georgia offense. "So it gives us a good measuring stick for the players we have to see if they can hold up."
If they can hold up in the first two weeks, Georgia's defenders can play with anyone. But will they be ready in time? We'll learn the answer in nine days.