Can Georgia withstand the losses on defense and get back in title contention?
Judging from Saturday's spring game, the Bulldogs intend to answer that question with a resounding "yes" in 2013.
The Black team (first-team defense/second-team offense) dug out of a 17-7 second-quarter hole to defeat the Red team 23-17 in front of 45,113 fans at Sanford Stadium in Athens, Ga., on Saturday afternoon.
After allowing Aaron Murray and the Red team defense to cruise down the field on the opening drive of the game, Chris Mayes, John Taylor, Ray Drew and the rest of the Bulldog defensive line controlled the line of scrimmage for the rest of the game.
"Mayes, Taylor and those guys up front really got good push and made things happen in the front seven," defensive coordinator and Black team head coach Todd Grantham said after the game. "After that first drive, we played really well. I'm very pleased with the attitude and energy of our guys."
It wasn't just a spring game, it was a spring statement by the defense.
Murray's stats were impressive—12-of-18 for 200 yards and two touchdowns—but the rising senior had issues getting his timing down with some of his younger receivers and rarely looked comfortable in the pocket.
Jordan Jenkins, who is slated to step in at outside linebacker in place of Jarvis Jones, had four tackles and one sack on the afternoon. The sophomore likes what he saw this spring from the new-look Georgia defense.
"It's not like last year when we had a few high draft picks," he said. "We have 27 guys ready to play that we can swap in. It's not just the starters. Our ones and twos are ready to play."
Former Bulldog Jarvis Jones watched from the sideline as Jenkins, his heir apparent, set the edge and worked hard to stop the run—the one missing piece of the puzzle last season.
"I definitely feel like I've improved against the run," he said. "I definitely feel like I improved using my hands and getting off blocks. I got caught a little bit on inside stunts today, but that's something that I will work on this summer."
The linebacking crew—which is the most veteran portion of the defense, despite the loss of Jones and Alec Ogletree—was all over the place. Junior middle linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera tallied eight and six tackles, respectively, with Wilson notching one sack.
It wasn't just the expected leaders that stepped up on Saturday afternoon.
Players like sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons and true freshman early enrollee Tray Matthews have been hot topics this spring in Athens, and they shined on Saturday.
Matthews had a fantastic afternoon, including a great tackle on wide receiver J.J. Green in open space after being flipped over on a block, a pass breakup on the very next play and the game-winning stop, forcing running back Keith Marshall out of bounds on 4th-and-1 from the Black 41-yard line with 4:41 to go in the game.
Harvey-Clemons finished the day with three tackles and helped force Marshall outside on that critical fourth down play.
"If your eyes are in the right spot and do what you're supposed to do, you're going to be productive," Grantham said. "Those guys are athletic, physical, good against the pass and the run. Tray [Matthews] had that big stop on fourth down late in the game, and that was big for him and the team."
It is also a sign of things to come.
Is this Georgia defense loaded with superstars like last year's squad?
Not on paper. But games aren't played on paper.
The one that was played between the hedges on Saturday afternoon featured defenders that were young, talented and definitely worthy of keeping the Bulldog momentum going forward.
A revamped defensive line? No worries. Ray Drew and Chris Mayes can control the line of scrimmage. Stopping the run? It looks like Jordan Jenkins, Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera can handle that responsibility just fine. A new-look secondary? Meh...just Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews there to fill the void.
Georgia was only five yards shy of playing for the crystal football last season. If the defense plays like it did on Saturday, the Bulldogs won't have to worry about those extra five yards in 2013.
*Barrett Sallee is the Lead SEC College Football Writer for Bleacher Report. Unless otherwise noted, the quotes in this story were attained first-hand.
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