ATHENS, Ga. - No two years have been alike for Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham since his return to college coaching.
Grantham last month finished his fourth spring with the Bulldogs, who are significantly younger defensively after cycling out nine seniors and three juniors who declared early for the NFL draft. It is a task he has welcomed since last season's team wrapped up a 12-2 record on New Year's Day, and he seems to be relishing his role at this level after spending 11 years as a defensive assistant in the NFL.
"I love these kids," Grantham said. "Take Jarvis Jones. I first met Jarvis at a Cracker Barrel, and we talked about what we could do to help him reach his goals. Now all of a sudden, he has reached that goal. Not everyone is going to be an NFL player, though we can help them do that, but the most fun part is watching kids come in as freshmen and grow into men who make the right decisions and become mature people.
"In pro ball, you get guys who you care about and you want to do well, but it's a job."
Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt believed Grantham could readjust quickly to the college game, since Grantham had worked at Virginia Tech and Michigan State throughout the 1990s. Richt made the hire in January 2010 after the '09 Bulldogs surrendered a program-record 4,412 yards under former coordinator Willie Martinez.
Grantham was hired at $750,000, which tied him with Alabama's Kirby Smart as college's third highest-paid defensive coordinator behind Southern Cal's Monte Kiffin and Texas' Will Muschamp.
"I think Todd really embraced that we're more than coaches," Richt said. "We're mentors, and we're father figures. We're guys who these guys really kind of count on for a lot of counsel besides just football. He really embraced that from the very beginning, and I was very happy to see that along with what he could bring to the table just as far as football was concerned."
It was no overnight success for Grantham, who changed Georgia's defensive system from a 4-3 to a 3-4. The Bulldogs in 2010 often looked confused and did not have a dominant nose tackle and wound up 6-7, giving up 4,271 yards, which was the third-highest in program history.
Things changed abruptly in 2011, when the Bulldogs were more familiar with the 3-4 and finished fifth nationally in total defense and led the Southeastern Conference with 32 turnovers gained. They entered last season expected to be one of the top defenses nationally but were unable to flourish early on as a result of linebacker Alec Ogletree and safety Bacarri Rambo serving four-game suspensions.
The Bulldogs capitalized on their defensive upgrade by collecting 22 wins and two SEC East titles the past two seasons. Grantham now earns $850,000, having received a $25,000 bump earlier this year after he interviewed for the coordinator vacancy with the New Orleans Saints.
"I think there is so much more diversity in the types of offenses that you see on a week-to-week basis in college depending on who you've scheduled," Richt said. "One week we might be working against a spread team and the next week it's the triple-option and next week it might be a team that wants to run with power and slow the game down. There's just so much more diversity in offensive styles in college compared to the NFL.
"Until you live through it a little bit, you learn some things as you go, and when you play these people a second time around, you've got a better idea of how to defend."
Grantham has never come back to a Georgia defense with so few returning starters, but he sounded far more excited than concerned during the 15 spring workouts. The cupboard isn't completely bare, with defensive end Garrison Smith, linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera and cornerback Damian Swann as potential All-SEC candidates.
It's not like the Bulldogs aren't annually adding top-10 recruiting classes, either.
"This spring was a little unique because we had six kids who were playing high school football in September," Grantham said. "Our continuity was really good, and I think we've got really good teachers on this staff. There are going to be some roadblocks, but as long as you stay the course with what you're doing and what you believe, you're going to be fine."
Said Richt: "If we walked out there and felt like we didn't have the talent base to compete, we would be concerned. I think we're excited because there are a lot of guys that are really anxious to prove that they can do it, and I think there's enough talent here to be successful."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.