Garrison Smith is a history major, so when he saw the opportunity Tuesday to display some of the knowledge he has accumulated these past four years at UGA, he pounced on it.
“It wasn’t the Manhattan Project or nothing like that,” Smith said of the Bulldogs’ talent loss on defense.
Hyperbole aside, Smith was referencing the 1940s secret meetings that produced the first atomic bombs as a way of explaining that it was no secret the Bulldogs were going lose a lot of weapons from last season’s defense. Nine players were invited to NFL camps, and seven were drafted, including first-rounders Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree.
“They did what they had to here,” said Smith, a senior defensive end and one of the Bulldogs’ four returning starters. “They did well and they succeeded and they went on to the next level to take care of their families. And our coaches did a great job of recruiting young guys they knew could play, and now it’s their time to step up and show what they can do.”
They’ll get to. No. 5 Georgia will go to battle against No. 8 Clemson in Death Valley on Saturday night with seven new defensive starters: nose guard Mike Thornton, defensive end Sterling Bailey, outside linebacker James DeLoach, inside linebacker Ramik Wilson, cornerback Brendan Langley, strong safety Connor Norman and free safety Tray Matthews.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is, of course, orchestrating the rebuild. Now in his fourth season as the architect of the Bulldogs’ defense, Grantham spent 11 years as an NFL assistant coach. And one of the things he said he looked forward to when he returned to the college ranks in 2010 was the latitude of identifying and recruiting his own talent. From the outset he took an active role as a recruiter. So virtually all of the defensive players who will suit up Saturday were basically hand-picked by Grantham.
“In pro ball when you take a first-round pick you’re saying that he’s a difference-maker, that he’s a guy that’s going to change, that he’s a franchise-type player,” Grantham said. “Each year you might get one guy like that because you’re only going to get one first-round pick. … I enjoy going out and recruiting guys that can make a difference. And I think our staff here as done a really good job of evaluating our players and going out and targeting guys we feel like can make a difference. So I’m excited about the guys we’ve got.”
Grantham recalled a conversation he had with Jones at a Cracker Barrel three years ago in which he told him how he could utilize his skill set in Georgia’s defense. A year and a half ago, he had a similar conversation with Jordan Jenkins.
“As guys move on you’re going to regroup, you’re going to retool. And I enjoy that part of it,” Grantham said.
Said Jenkins: “I thought about this year when I was getting recruited. I thought about it last season. I knew we had a lot of older guys on the team. … I figured last year would be a preparatory year. I didn’t think I’d get in as much as I did. So we knew what was supposed to happen, and we were prepared for it. We weren’t shocked by it.”
Jenkins started six games as a freshman last season, taking over at the outside linebacker position opposite Jones the last half of the season.
Georgia’s history bodes well for rebuilding defenses. In the 12 seasons since 1966 in which Georgia won an SEC or division championship, the Bulldogs averaged fewer than six returning starters on defense (5.8). Five times they had five or fewer starters come back, with a low of three in 1992.
The point being, rebuilds aren’t always a bad thing.
“We’ve been preparing for this moment for a long time now,” junior cornerback Damian Swann said. “We kind of knew who was going to the NFL, and they did. So we prepared ourselves for that, and we started getting guys ready a long time ago. I’m really looking forward to seeing what we can do together.”