Twelve football games spread out over 13 weeks will be the true gauge of how good Georgia’s defense will be this season.
Natrez Patrick has seen the talent and the experience returning on the unit to set the bar quite high for what he’s expecting.
“Domination, nothing less,” the junior inside linebacker said.
Coach Kirby Smart and defensive coordinator Mel Tucker bring back 10 starters on that side of the ball.
The defense will be judged on how it performs week by week whether it’s night game in South Bend, a trip to Rocky Top, the annual rumble with Florida in Jacksonville or a November visit to the Plains not to mention six home games.
“It’s an older group,” Patrick said. “We’ve had a year under coach Smart and coach Tucker’s scheme. It’s a bunch of mature guys. The entire defensive standard is nothing less than domination.”
Outside linebacker Davin Bellamy put it this way: “The expectations are high and this defense is up for the challenge. The way we’re working right now, flying around to the ball, it’s very impressive. You see a lot of guys out there who are hungry, We know we’ve got to be that sparkplug. We’re going out there every day and just playing good ball right now.”
Smart will put the brakes on all of that.
He’s coached stout defenses during four national championship seasons as Alabama defensive coordinator.
Ask him if he has the pieces in place to develop a similar type defense in Athens this year, Smart said: “I don’t like making those comparisons. I don’t think that’s a fair comparison, I really don’t. I think every defense has a history and identity of its own. This defense has to create its own identity, different than last year’s, different than the year before that and different from anyone I ever had at Alabama.”
Georgia’s defense in 2016 was good, but certainly not great.
The Bulldogs were 16th nationally in total defense (327.5 yards per game), but 109th in tackles for loss (4.8 per game).
They were tied for 10th in turnovers gained (27), but 113th in red zone defense (90.7) and 121st when it came to touchdowns allowed in the red zone.
“We needed to improve in every category whether it’s red zone defense or stopping the run, stopping the pass,” Patrick said.
First-team preseason All-SEC selections in defensive tackle Trenton Thompson and inside linebacker Roquan Smith headline a starting unit that returns all but nickel back Maurice Smith from last year.
Smart said on Saturday that he had seen improvement from the spring “more of a stoutness, more competition, a lot more good players who are competing against each other.”
Yet he tempered his thoughts three days later: “We’ve got some spots we’ve really got to improve. We have not played great since camp in the secondary.”
Smart said Georgia’s defensive front which includes Jonathan Ledbetter, Julian Rochester and John Atkins has played physical up front this preseason and Roquan Smith has made a noticeable difference after being out this spring with a shoulder injury.
Bellamy said he spoke with senior cornerback Malkom Parrish during preseason practices about the comfort level the players have playing together “for a long time” and on defense that saw the coaching staff returned intact except for a new defensive line coach in Tray Scott.
Georgia’s defensive standard was probably set by the “Junkyard Dawgs” of Erk Russell.
In more recent years, the Bulldogs 2002 SEC championship team gave up only 31 points during the final seven games under coordinator Brian VanGorder and his defense ranked eighth in total defense in 2004. Under coordinator Todd Grantham in 2011, the Bulldogs finished fifth in total defense and first in turnovers gained.
Georgia, under coordinator Jeremy Pruitt in 2015, ranked seventh in total defense and eighth in scoring defense and led the nation in pass defense.
Tucker, Georgia’s second-year coordinator, was defensive backs coach on Ohio State’s national championshop team in 2002 when Mark Dantonio was the defensive coordinator and the Buckeyes were second in the nation in scoring defense and third in run defense.
As defensive coordinator in Jacksonville, Tucker led a unit that was sixth in total defense in the NFL in 2011. With Smart as coordinator and Tucker as defensive backs coach, Alabama was third in the nation in total defense and scoring defense in 2015 when it won the national title allowing 276.3 yards and 15.1 points per game.
“We’re just really about this group and what we can achieve,” Tucker said. “We talk about ‘what is our identity going to be this year’. Every year you have a new team. It’s a new defense. We’re working to be at our best and I’m pleased with how the guys have worked.”