ATHENS, Ga. — It was the biggest staff overhaul Mark Richt has made in his 10 seasons as Georgia’s football coach, firing three defensive assistants last December, including coordinator Willie Martinez.
The Bulldogs have played 11 games under new coordinator Todd Grantham, who was hired in January after two seasons as defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys, but have they improved? Grantham was given a $750,000 annual salary, and his players believe he’s been worth it so far.
“Numbers-wise and the way we actually play as a unit, I think we’re a lot better,” inside linebacker Christian Robinson said. “I feel like we hustle to the ball a lot more. We get a lot more turnovers. We play a bigger part in changing the game.”
When asked if his defense was better now than a year ago, Richt said, “That’s kind of a reflective question. Let’s wait until the season is over and we’ll talk about those things.”
Georgia hosts Georgia Tech on Saturday night and needs a victory to go 6-6 and attain bowl eligibility.
Grantham inherited a defense with only four players who started most of the games last season: cornerback Brandon Boykin, ends Demarcus Dobbs and Justin Houston and linebacker Darryl Gamble. He implemented a 3-4 scheme that took some adjusting to, resulting in missed assignments early in the season. Along with receiver A.J. Green’s four-game NCAA suspension, that helped put the Bulldogs in a 1-4 hole.
“I think we’ve made strides,” Grantham said. “What’s interesting is that in total yards we’re like fourth in the league, but we’re not good on third down, which is a little bit surprising to me. That gets into more rush and cover. From a simplistic standpoint, if you get better on third down, you’re going to reduce the amount of yards.”
The Bulldogs are allowing 22.1 points a game this season after allowing 25.9 a year ago. A more accurate figure last season is 23.8 considering Georgia threw three interceptions returned for touchdowns and allowed a kickoff return for a touchdown.
In addition, last season’s nonconference trio of Oklahoma State, Arizona State and Tennessee Tech was tougher than this year’s lineup of Louisiana-Lafayette, Colorado and Idaho State, though the Bulldogs went 2-1 in each case.
This year’s defense has been undeniably better in forcing turnovers, amassing 20 so far after collecting just 12 last season. Last year’s unit was slightly better on third downs, allowing a 38 percent conversion rate compared to 41 percent, which is last in the SEC, this year.
“Statistically I think we’ve been better, and I think the players have become more comfortable in the scheme and have liked the aggressive nature of it,” Dobbs said. “It’s more appealing to us. We didn’t perform in games as well as we should have, but we’re on the right track as a team moving forward. I think next year that you’re going to see a better defense as people get used to it.”
Georgia will lose Dobbs, Gamble and inside linebacker Akeem Dent off this year’s defense and likely will lose Houston, who moved to outside linebacker and is rated No. 1 nationally at that spot by NFL draft analyst Mel Kiper.
Grantham has been focused on the Yellow Jackets, putting his players through four days of contact work to get them prepared for the cutback blocking Tech employs in its triple option. After Saturday night, he expects to hit the recruiting trail and hit it hard.
“I’m convinced more than ever that we can have the kind of defense here that you want to have,” he said. “I do think we’ve got to address some areas in both recruiting and development.”
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...