NCF Nation: Michael Gilliard

A lot of votes were cast and it came down to the wire, but the fans have spoken and South Carolina has won the poll battle of the defenses.

With nearly 12,000 votes cast, South Carolina barely claimed first place with 24 percent of the vote. Alabama was second with 23 percent, while LSU grabbed 21 percent. Georgia got 13 percent of the vote while the category of "Other" received 19 percent.

South Carolina is a solid pick when you look at who returns. Defensive ends Jadeveon Clowney and Devin Taylor are back alongside tackle Kelcy Quarles. Clowney and Taylor combined for 20.5 tackles for loss and 14 sacks. Quarles really progressed as the season went on and provided a nice big, disruptive body against the run.

Veterans return at linebacker, with seniors Shaq Wilson and Reginald Bowens in the middle and DeVonte Holloman is back at the Spur, where he's at his best. Seniors D.J. Swearinger (safety) and Akeem Auguste (cornerback) are back in the secondary, as well.

Most of the questions for this defense lie in the secondary, with sophomores-to-be Victor Hampton (cornerback) and Brison Williams (safety) expected to start this fall. Williams collected a start against Florida last year, while Hampton did most of his damage on special teams. Expect offenses to key in on them early.

At this moment, I'd have to go with LSU. The Tigers return one of the best defensive lines in the country, with two potential first-rounders in ends Barkevious Mingo and Sam Montgomery. And LSU's staff is very excited about what Bennie Logan and Anthony Johnson can do at the tackle spots. This line should be the strength of this team and it will make it hard to run and throw on the Tigers. It'll take pressure off the linebackers, which lose two starters.

The secondary loses Morris Claiborne and Brandon Taylor, but the Honey Badger (Tyrann Mathieu) is back and so is Eric Reid, who might be the league's top safety. Keep an eye on Tharold Simon at cornerback. He should be a solid cover corner this fall.

Alabama is down a handful of starters from last year, but don't think that will send this unit into a tailspin. Defensive tackle Jesse Williams is an animal and linebackers C.J. Mosley, Nico Johnson and Adrian Hubbard aren't slouches by any means. Yes, the secondary is a little green, but corner Dee Milliner and Robert Lester should help provide some stability. JUCO standouts Deion Belue and Travell Dixon impressed this spring and youngsters Vinnie Sunseri and Ha'Sean Clinton-Dix look ready to be big contributors.

And with nine starters returning for Georgia, the Bulldogs should have another solid defensive squad this fall. There has to be some worry with four starters suspended for the beginning of the season, but at full strength, this defense will be a handful, especially with one of the best linebacking corps in the country that includes All-American Jarvis Jones, speedster Alec Ogletree and work horse Michael Gilliard. Once Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Shawn Williams and Branden Smith are all back and together, Georgia's secondary will be potent.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Complacency is always a concern when bringing back a top-rated team or unit. Players can’t hide from the fact that they’re good and everyone around them will make sure they know it and make sure they remember what they did.

Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham doesn’t want his defense, which ranked fifth nationally in 2011, to forget either. But it’s what he doesn’t want his players to forget that has this unit ready to pick up and surpass last year’s success.

“You don’t let guys forget where they came from,” Grantham said. “Don’t let guys forget what got them there and you build from there.”

That’s why Grantham is making sure he gets back to the basics with his players. We’re talking hustling to the ball, right form and playing physical basics. Every year, his plan has always been to go right back to simple fundamentals.

[+] EnlargeChristian Robinson
Radi Nabulsi/ESPN.comChristian Robinson says this defense has the makings of being one of the best ever at Georgia.
Losing those loses a defense.

“To me, you break it down into five phases and you go back every year and you start over,” Grantham said.

Five phases:

  1. Pre-spring workouts
  2. Spring practice
  3. Summer workouts
  4. Fall camp
  5. Regular season

Fundamentals 101 comes in right when spring ball starts. Proper footwork is harped on. Correct field placement is set up over and over. The right tackling technique is perfected … and then perfected again.

In order to combat complacency, the same motions run by All-American linebacker -- and sack master -- Jarvis Jones are run by wide-eyed nervous freshmen. The goal is to have the older guys pick things up quickly and then assist the youngsters. Grantham wants his players to get better individually, but then focus on improving the team as a whole from the ground up.

That’s why Grantham thinks his defense was much better in 2011. Fundamentals made that group even more comfortable in Grantham’s 3-4 and helped it evolve as the season progressed. The Bulldogs allowed 277.2 yards per game (51 yards less than 2010), forced 32 turnovers and recorded 100 tackles for loss for minus-439 yards.

“Yeah, we knew our system better, but I thought we were a more mentally and physically tough team and we played defense the way you’re supposed to play it -- physical and aggressive,” Grantham said. “When you’re all on the same page and speaking the same language, those things can happen.”

This spring, players bought right into what Grantham preached. Rising senior linebacker Christian Robinson said no one seemed concerned about being content. He said players looked at what they didn't do last year as a spark for the spring. Players dwelled on the 35 points given up to Boise State, the 45 to South Carolina, the 42 to LSU and the 33 to Michigan State -- all losses.

Even when players felt good, Robinson said coaches directed them to video screens to bring them down a notch.

“We’re not perfect, so when we go in our meeting rooms we watch the tape and there are always things to get better at,” Robinson said.

And if film work doesn’t help, coach Mark Richt can cut into the confidence when needed.

“You’re really not a great defense until you play great and we haven’t done that in 2012,” he said. “We haven’t had a chance to do that yet. There’s an anticipation of having a chance to be pretty good if everybody keeps it together, stays healthy and does their part.”

One humbling thought is that Georgia will be without four key starters suspended early for poor off-field behavior. The secondary takes the biggest hit with All-American safety Bacarri Rambo and cornerbacks Branden Smith and Sanders Commings out. Inside linebacker Alec Ogletree is also suspended.

Grantham and his players agree that while they’re disappointed in the boneheaded decisions made, they aren’t dwelling on the situation. Grantham used it as an opportunity to create better depth by inserting younger players. He’s no stranger to changing lineups, as he had 11 different ones in 14 games in 2011.

He also received a boost when star wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell moved to corner. He should start the season on defense.

Richt hopes this turns into a situation like last year when linebackers Michael Gilliard and Amarlo Herrera stepped up when Robinson and Ogletree were injured. It also gives coaches a chance to cross train players more, something Grantham prides himself on. (Look at safety Shawn Williams playing linebacker last year).

Earlier this spring, Jones proclaimed that Georgia had the nation’s best defense. Time will tell on Jones’ statement, but after going through the spring motions, at least one of his teammates sees where Jones is coming from.

“We have an opportunity to do something special, as a defense and as a team,” Robinson said. “If we go out and do what we know and what we’ve learned, we could be one of the best ever to play at Georgia.”

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