ATHENS, Ga. - It's been an unlucky 13th season for Rodney Garner.
Georgia annually has produced one of the Southeastern Conference's most formidable defensive fronts since Garner began that group for the Bulldogs in 1998. This season, however, his big boys aren't getting it done, as the loss of three tackles from a year ago coupled with the adjustment to new coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme have left the Bulldogs vulnerable at the point of attack.
"It's definitely my biggest challenge," Garner said this week. "I think they're showing some improvement, but obviously we've got so much room to improve that it's hard to gauge."
The Bulldogs showed promise in their Sept. 4 opener against Louisiana-Lafayette, when they made nine lost-yardage stops and held the Ragin' Cajuns to 14 rushing yards. But they now have lost four straight games, getting bullied by the ground games of South Carolina, Mississippi State and Colorado and the aerial attack of Arkansas.
Georgia surrendered 182 rushing yards to South Carolina freshman tailback Marcus Lattimore, 174 to Mississippi State's combination of quarterback Chris Relf and tailback Vick Ballard and 200 to Colorado's combo of Tyler Hansen and Rodney Stewart.
"There have been some lumps, but I don't want to say that we've been totally dominated," defensive end Brandon Wood said. "There have been some self-inflicted wounds caused by us getting out of our responsibilities, and maybe we've been thinking too much out there. I don't want to say the other team is not doing anything, but we're still learning."
The Bulldogs' leading tackler last season was outside linebacker Rennie Curran, who decided to turn pro early, but the biggest personnel losses occurred in the interior with the departures of Geno Atkins, Jeff Owens and Kade Weston. Atkins was a fourth-round NFL pick, while Owens and Weston went in the seventh.
Demarcus Dobbs is Georgia's most experienced defensive lineman, having made 22 career starts, but he discovers each week how different it is playing end in a 3-4 compared to a 4-3. The 6-foot-2, 285-pound Dobbs lined up outside the offensive tackle last year in a 4-3 but now lines up outside the guard.
"You've got to do some different things with him," Garner said. "From a physicality standpoint, he's not going to ever match up size wise with those guys or in power and strength. It's just not the deal, but he's trying to improve and is playing hard and doing some things to help us."
Said Dobbs: "A lot of people didn't think I would be able to hold my own because I'm undersized in the interior, but I see it as a challenge and a way to prove myself."
Dobbs leads the linemen with 14 tackles, which is tied for 12th on the team. DeAngelo Tyson and Kwame Geathers, who split time at the nose position, are next with seven and six tackles.
The fact Wood has been hobbled and nose Justin Anderson played one game before undergoing season-ending surgery for turf toe hasn't aided the overall development.
"I think the guys are a work in progress," Grantham said. "I think they continue to work hard. I see flashes at times, but the biggest issue I have are our explosive plays. That starts at the point, but everybody sees the end result in the secondary because that's the last line of defense.
"There is no excuse for us giving up a 65-yard run like we did at Colorado."
For all of Georgia's struggles last year under former coordinator Willie Martinez, the Bulldogs did rank third in the SEC against the run, allowing 126 yards a game. Against the Gamecocks, Bulldogs and Buffaloes, they allowed an average of 201 rushing yards.
This is Georgia's first four-game losing streak since 1990, and it's the first one Garner has experienced since signing to play for Auburn in 1984.
"You can tell he's going through a difficult time, because we have the talent to be successful," Dobbs said. "We have all the goods, but we aren't capitalizing, and our play reflects on him as a coach. We've disappointed him a little bit, and we know we could do a lot better. He treats us like his sons, and the fact we're not doing well hurts him, too."