- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- When Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt watched film of his new team’s first spring practice last month, he wasn’t very encouraged by what he saw.
Pruitt and the Bulldogs’ other defensive assistants counted 147 “loafs,” in which Georgia’s defenders didn’t run to the ball, finish a play or hustle until the whistle.
“The first practice we were like deer in headlights,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “We didn’t know what to expect or what the coaches wanted.”
While Georgia’s players might have been surprised by the pace and structure of their first spring practice under Pruitt, they adjusted to the new staff’s expectations with surprising quickness. Pruitt said he counted only 13 “loafs” in the second practice.
“The kids have good attitudes,” said Pruitt, who left Florida State for UGA in January after helping lead the Seminoles to a BCS national championship last season. “They’re trying to do what we’re asking them to do. We’re doing things a little different in terms of how we practice and finish. They’re doing a good job.”
In the first two weeks of spring practice, Pruitt has made it clear that Georgia’s defense will operate differently, at least in how it practices and prepares. Bulldogs fans can only hope that the changes lead to better on-the-field results this coming season.
Last year, Georgia’s defense ranked tied for 78th in scoring defense (29 points per game), 45th in total defense (375.5 yards), 41st in run defense (148.2 yards) and 84th in pass-efficiency defense (134.7 rating). Worse, the Bulldogs generated only 15 turnovers, tied with Kentucky for second-fewest in the SEC and 109th nationally.
Along with myriad injuries on offense, Georgia’s woeful defense caused it to limp to an 8-5 finish in 2013 after a promising start in which it defeated South Carolina and LSU, which were each ranked No. 6 nationally at the time. In four regular-season losses, UGA’s defense allowed an average of 38 points.
“They lost a lot of guys from the 2012 defense,” Pruitt said. “Some of the young guys were forced into roles they weren’t ready for. It’s no fault of their own or the coaches. They were the best guys here.”
Pruitt, a native of Rainsville, Ala., surprised a lot of people when he left FSU for UGA after only one season. Last season, FSU’s defense ranked first nationally in scoring defense (12.1 points), second in pass-efficiency defense (93.8 rating), third in total defense (281.4 yards) and 18th in rushing defense (124.8 yards). Pruitt, who was a finalist for the Broyles Award as the sport’s top assistant coach last season, replaced Todd Grantham, who left UGA for Louisville.
“To me, I’ve always wanted to coach in the SEC,” Pruitt said. “Once I got to college, that’s where I wanted to be. I think Georgia is a fantastic job and opportunity. I loved Florida State. They’re great people, and it’s a great place. But I just thought this would be a really good challenge.”
There's good news and bad news for Pruitt. The good news is that UGA brings back nine defensive starters from a year ago. The bad news is that not everyone returns. Defensive end Garrison Smith exhausted his eligibility, and free safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed from the team in February for an undisclosed violation of team rules. Earlier this month, sophomore safety Tray Matthews and three other players were arrested and charged with misdemeanor theft by deception for allegedly cashing university-issued checks twice. UGA coach Mark Richt hasn’t yet announced punishment for the accused players.
Pruitt doesn’t yet know what led to so many defensive breakdowns at UGA last season. In Georgia’s 43-38 loss at Auburn, its defense allowed a 73-yard touchdown pass on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds to play. In a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, the Bulldogs surrendered a 99-yard touchdown pass on third-and-14.
“The big thing is we gave up way too many big plays last year,” Pruitt said. “Whether it was in the run game or the throw game, there were too many mistakes. We’ve got to do a better job of rotating in the secondary, where it’s a 7-yard gain instead of a 25-yard gain if the ball spits out of there. If we do that, we’ll make the offense work harder and have to earn it.”
The strength of Georgia’s defense this coming season figures to be its linebacker corps. Senior inside linebacker Ramik Wilson led the SEC with 133 tackles last season, and Jenkins and outside linebacker Leonard Floyd combined for 11.5 sacks and 17.5 tackles for loss.
Georgia’s secondary, which was plagued by communication breakdowns last season, remains a work in progress. Incoming freshmen Malkom Parrish, Dominick Sanders and Shaquille Jones might be asked to contribute right away, along with Shattle Fenteng, the No. 1 juco cornerback, according to ESPN RecruitingNation.
Pruitt figures to use more four-man fronts than Grantham did, although he prefers smaller, quicker linemen than what UGA had last season.
Pruitt hopes the faster pace in practice will help UGA’s conditioning.
“It’s a lot more up-tempo,” Wilson said. “We’re running more, and they’re trying to bring in more passion and effort. [Pruitt] is making the point that he’s going to play the best 11 guys out there. It’s a lot more intense.”
Said Jenkins, “The tempo is a lot faster and people are moving a lot faster. There’s no more watching. I feel like we have a sense of urgency now. We’re a lot more aggressive. Everybody is trying to make plays.”
Georgia fans will have to wait until Aug. 30, when the Bulldogs open the season against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, to learn whether last year’s growing pains will pay dividends this coming season.
“Our guys are learning how we want them to practice,” Pruitt said. “They’re trying to finish and trying to do what we ask them to do. We’re going to have to play with a lot of toughness and effort. We’re going to have to make fewer mental mistakes. That’s how we’re going to play this year. That’s our focus -- effort, toughness and eliminating mental errors.”
4hGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough