UGA looks to wreak havoc against Commodores

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Bulldogs senior defensive back J.R. Reed and his teammates have been focused on wreaking havoc this season. (Video by Chip Towers)

Havoc, havoc, havoc.

That’s all we’ve heard from the Georgia Bulldogs since they opened camp 25 days ago. So, as they prepare for Saturday’s opener at Vanderbilt, it only seems fitting to get an update on the havoc rate coach Kirby Smart has deemed so critical to No. 3 Georgia’s prospects this season.

“I would not ever say you feel good about it,” Smart said at Monday’s presser. “I don’t sit before the first game and feel certain about anything. You watch openers and you just realize there are so many things that you can prepare for but you are not prepared for.”

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In other words, Smart can’t be sure.

The reality is, while havoc is a really cool word and sounds sort of chaotic and random, havoc rate is actually a tangible statistic that can be quantified each week. So asking Smart for an update on havoc rate is like asking him to predict how many yards the Bulldogs might pass for on Saturday.

What can be verified in the waning countdown to the start of the season is that havoc rate has been emphasized in Georgia’s camp like never before. Whether that translates into more tackles for loss, turnovers and batted balls won’t be known until final horn sounds Saturday at Vanderbilt Stadium.

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At that time, the Bulldogs can only hope they’ve achieved their stated goal in the opener – a 20 percent havoc rate – because the thought of it being emphasized even more than it has makes them shudder.

Offensive players included.

“Yeah, it’s been annoying for us,” senior tight end Charlie Woerner said. “But it’s been good for the offense, too. (The defense has) been bringing the blitzes, they’ve been trying to strip the ball from us, which in turn is making us better as an offense. They’re being the best they can be and they’re preparing us for the stuff that can happen in the game.”

A quick refresher on havoc rate -- it is the total number of an opponents’ offensive plays divided the times those plays resulted in a tackle for loss (including quarterback sacks), an interception, a fumble or a batted ball. For the sake of easy math, if Vanderbilt were to run 50 plays Saturday, and 10 of them resulted in one of the aforementioned outcomes, that’d be a havoc rate of 20 percent.

Or, as columnist Bill Connelly once wrote, it’s “how much hell a defense is raising.”

Georgia’s defense wasn’t all that bad last season. The Bulldogs’ were fourth in the SEC in total defense at 314.3 yards per game, or 4.9 per play. But they were not very good in the categories that encompass havoc: 12th in sacks (24) and 13th in tackles for loss (65).

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As a result, Georgia finished 73rd nationally in havoc rate, according to Football Outsiders, which tracks advanced stats for pro and college football teams. By comparison, Clemson and Alabama – the two teams ranked ahead of the No. 3 Bulldogs in preseason polls – finished Nos. 3 and 2, respectively, last season.

With a team mantra of “Do More” this season, it would follow that Georgia would also be looking to create more havoc. If and how that manifests itself, we’ll have to see Saturday.

“I think a lot of people expect to see more people coming,” Smart said, meaning to blitz. “That is not necessarily the case. … Havoc does not equal pressure. Havoc equals having an ability to get a hand on the ball, to bat a ball, to cause a turnover, to do those things.”

Here’s how much of an emphasis havoc has been in preseason camp for the Bulldogs: A contraption holding a football stands outside the defensive backs’ team meeting room. They’re asked to knock the ball loose on cue. And it’s not easy.

“There’s a brick in there or something,” junior nickelback Mark Webb said with a laugh.

It would pay for Georgia to knock the ball out of the hands of the Commodores’ hands on Saturday, because they have some exceptional offensive players. Vanderbilt features the SEC’s leading returning rusher in Ke’Shawn Vaughn, who averaged 149.8 yards over the final five games of last season, senior tight end Jared Pinkney of Norcross, the nation's leading returner with 50 catches in 2018, and wide receiver Kalija Lipscomb, a Biletnikoff Award candidate who had over 900 yards receiving last year and is closing in on 1,900 for his career.

“They have a lot of elite players on offense, a really good player at every level,” Smart pointed out.

The Bulldogs can’t know what will happen on Saturday, but with the word “havoc” branded on their brains, they’re certainly expecting to wreak some versus the Commodores.

“It’s just been about preaching it,” senior safety J.R. Reed said. “We keep track of it every day and we talk about it every day, it’s something we bring up every day in meetings. It’s one of our main goals, to wreak havoc, and when you preach that and preach that, it’s going to happen.”

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