There’s good news for the Georgia Bulldogs’ revitalized defense led by new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt. That good news is that the regular season is still several months away.
Based on what the unit displayed on Saturday at G-Day, the Bulldogs’ annual spring game, Pruitt will need every minute of that time.
To be fair, there were noticeable improvements on display for the Dawgs on Saturday, but there's still a long road ahead.
Aside from the change in scheme and personnel, sound open-field tackling and a premium on forcing turnovers appear to be the two most prominent differences between Pruitt’s defense and those of years past under Todd Grantham. In that regard, Pruitt’s arrival in Athens has already resulted in drastic improvements in two of the defense’s weakest areas.
Last year, the much-maligned Georgia defense seemed to employ a bend and break mentality to deep passing plays. Time and time again, the Bulldogs missed opportunities to make plays downfield in the secondary, and forced turnovers were few and far between.
On Saturday, a number of players came up with big-time interceptions. Although the majority of these takeaways came against backup quarterbacks, it was encouraging to see defensive backs deflecting balls, interfering with passing lanes and playing aggressively.
Equally positive was Georgia’s open-field tackling—particularly in the secondary—which seemed to benefit from Pruitt’s emphasis on swarming the opposition. Most notably, Georgia defensive backs and linebackers had tremendous success in limiting wide receiver screens and routes in the flats.
Long Road Ahead
And yet, G-Day left fans with plenty of causes for frustration—or at the very least, concern.
For Georgia fans, the image of an opposing receiver running open deep into the secondary was a memory they hoped to forget along with Grantham's departure. The new-look defense, however, had the same old problem. Far too often, the secondary showed its youth as receivers streaked open for big games.
Starting quarterback Hutson Mason seemed to complete passes at will as he connected with open receivers on nine of his first 11 pass attempts. Backup signal-caller Faton Bauta, who in the past has been known more for his mobility and elusiveness than his arm, was equally impressive throwing the football—an indictment of the secondary.
Interestingly enough, Georgia also struggled at times against the run. Despite returning the overwhelming majority of its two-deep depth chart among the defensive line and linebackers, a number of unlikely offensive players found significant running room against the strongest part of Pruitt's defense.
Of course, the usual suspects like Todd Gurley and Brendan Douglas had success on the ground, but it was the significant yardage surrendered to the likes of Mason that was most frustrating. Several times, in fact, too many defenders dropped into coverage (presumably to compensate for poor defensive back coverage) and in doing so, surrendered the middle of the field—and often first down yardage—to the quarterback.
Where Does the Defense Go From Here?
The success of this defense will depend on its ability to pressure opposing quarterbacks. That’s not an overly bleak scenario given Georgia’s wealth of talented pass-rushers including Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins and Ray Drew.
With Mason and two backups (Brice Ramsey and Jacob Park) wearing no-contact jerseys during the intrasquad scrimmage, it was hard at times to accurately gauge the effectiveness of Georgia’s pass rush. But Floyd found his way into the backfield several times, and that bodes well for this team, as it seeks a defensive identity.
Also encouraging was Pruitt’s utilization of middle linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson in rushing schemes. The two linebackers led the Southeastern Conference in tackles last year and boast the skill sets to disrupt quarterbacks in the passing game, and by the looks of things, Pruitt is going to allow them to do so.
The less time Georgia allows opposing quarterbacks, the better for Georgia’s still-developing secondary. Pruitt’s expertise is in developing defensive backs, but the vast majority of contributors at the cornerback and safety spots are still plagued by youth, inexperience or a combination thereof.
A reduced reliance on advanced schemes should prompt accelerated maturation in the secondary, but there is still a lot of work to be done. Fortunately, there’s still time for Puritt and his new staff.