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.
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.
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.”