Coming into the 2019 season, the national narrative was that defense was going to be Georgia’s weak link. Four months later, that’s an almost laughable notion.
The reality is, there were a lot of unknowns surrounding that unit, not the least of which was how it might perform under the direction of first-year coordinator Dan Lanning and his cohort Glenn Schumann. Never mind that there were only five returning starters, and two of those were of the part-time variety.
The answer, we know now, is quite well.
The Bulldogs (11-2) enter the Sugar Bowl matchup against Baylor (11-2) ranked fourth in the nation in total defense (274.2 ypg), third in rushing (75.69 ypg) and second in scoring (12.5 ppg).
Lanning gets a lot of credit for that. He brought an inclusive philosophy that produced specific roles for nearly 40 defensive players. Linemen, linebackers and defensive backs all had specialized duties. The Bulldogs rotated players in and out almost every play.
“We built our mantra on kind of being the ‘no-name defense,’ ” said Lanning, referring to the Miami Dolphins championship defense of 1972. “It's not really about the players. It's about us. Our guys have gone out and performed, tried to play to a standard regardless of who the opponent is. It’s been exciting to see our guys embrace that this year.”
That’s why Lanning and Georgia’s defenders aren’t sweating the fact that they will be without several front-line players for Wednesday’s game against the No. 7-ranked Bears. Senior safety J.R. Reed, senior defensive tackle Tyler Clark, senior outside linebacker Walter Grant and senior defensive back Tyrique McGhee are among defensive players who will be missing the game for various reasons, many of them undisclosed.
They’ll be facing a Baylor offense that is welcoming back junior quarterback Charlie Brewer from a concussion that kept him out of the Big 12 Championship game against Oklahoma. The Bears are one of the most balanced teams in that conference, averaging 36.6 rushes and 30.3 passes per game. Brewer, a 6-foot-1, 206-pound junior from Austin, Texas, is a threat to do either, running for 337 yards and 10 touchdowns and completing 65.2 percent of his passes for 20 touchdowns.
“They do a really good job on offense of mixing it up,” Lanning said. “They can carry tempo, but they can also slow it down. They have big tight ends that can block at the point of attack. But they are really big at wide receiver outside, and that's a challenge. They make you play them honest.”
Lanning met with reporters Monday at the Marriott Convention Center as part of the Sugar Bowl’s defensive news conference. It was his first interview since the first week of preseason camp in early August.
Following are some highlights of that 15-minute question-and-answer session:
Q: We didn’t even know you were going to be the coordinator when you came here last year. Can you reflect on all you have accomplished in the past year?
LANNING: “Sometimes you sit back and it’s hard to realize the blessings that you’ve had all your life. There’s probably nobody associated with this program that feels as fortunate as I do to get to do what I do every day. We have outstanding coaches on the defensive side of the ball, Glenn Schumann, Tray Scott, Charlton Warren. Those guys are a pleasure to work with.
“I get an opportunity to work with Coach [Kirby] Smart every day, and for me that’s really exciting. He’s a phenomenal coach. Since the first day I’ve got here, I’ve approached it like a guy that has a lot to learn. I’ll tell you this, he’s not afraid to teach me. So that’s exciting.”
Q: What are some of the realities of playing without J.R. Reed, who has been on the field for almost every play this season and does so much as far as making calls and getting everybody lined up?
LANNING: “The reality is that’s an opportunity. I love J.R. He’s done a lot for our program; extremely excited for him and his future. But we’re excited for the guys that are here and what they’re going to do. The reality is somebody is going to step up. It’s pretty common in this day and age that you’re going to get guys that get opportunities in games like this. We had a lot of young guys that got opportunities in this game last year. I think that was critical to their development and also provide you some insight to you as a coach with what you’ve got. We’ve got some really good players on our team. Excited to see those guys go perform.”
Q. Who are some of the guys in the secondary who might step up in Reed’s absence?
LANNING: “Fortunately for us we’ve played a ton of guys this entire season. I think if you go back and look, we probably had over 40 guys that really had significant roles for us in this defense. You’re going to see more. You’re not necessarily going to see new, but you will see more. You will see more Lewis Cine. You will see more Chris Smith, more Otis Reese. You will see some more guys but you’re not necessarily going to see new guys because all those guys at this point in the season have contributed to our success.”
Q. What are some of the challenges of defending Baylor?
LANNING: “First off, they are extremely well coached. They do a really good job on offense of mixing it up. They can carry tempo, but they can also slow it down. They have big tight ends that can block at the point of attack. But they are really big at wide receiver outside, and that’s a challenge. They make you play them honest.
“If you want to take away the wideouts, they’re going to be able to run the ball. If you want to take away the run, they are going to be able to run the 50/50 ball outside to guys like [Denzel] Mims. They have shifty backs. And their quarterback is just a winner. Brewer is a winner. You think, ‘OK, well, somebody else is playing,’ and the next guy comes in and has the success he had in the championship game.”
Q. What do you look for when recruiting defensive players?
LANNING: “Probably (contrary) to popular belief, we don’t really care how many stars guys have; that just seems to happen. But we focus on the overall player, what kind of person they are and where’s their room for growth. If we can take guys that are talented players but are eager to get better, those are the guys you really see develop. I think the guys in our program have done that and have really attacked it and wanted to get better. They come out of this program a whole lot better player because obviously coach Smart is one of the best people doing it when it comes to development of players.
“We have a lot of support. We’ve got player personnel staff; we’ve got a strength staff; we’ve got coaches; we’ve got a lot of people that touch our players in our program. So, at the end of the day, that provides a lot of opportunities for growth and we have some guys really taking advantage of that.”
Q. Kirby mentioned you brought a lot of “outside-the-box” thinking to the defense. What are some examples of that?
LANNING: “I don’t think you could single me out from a standpoint of doing something outside the box. I think every one of our coaches on the defensive side of the ball really look for that. This is more credit probably to coach Smart, from a standpoint of he doesn’t want to be cookie-cutter from a standpoint of defense. We’re going to find things that are going to make us better. If we need to change the way we do a defensive meeting, if we need to bring excitement to a different piece of practice, if we need to get guys running around with the ball in between periods so we can strip it to work on takeaways, whatever it is that we can do different, coach Smart is willing to do it. He’s really afforded our defensive staff the opportunity to go look for different things that can make us better. He’s probably at the forefront of that as much as any other person on our staff when it comes to making changes.”
Q. Was your liberal rotation of players a product of philosophy or necessity?
LANNING: “What we set out to do at the beginning of the year was identify the guys that were ready to play and contribute to our team. And what we didn’t want to do is have guys that we felt like could play on the sideline for us. So, if you had the ability to have a role for us in this defense and you were ready, you played. What we’ve said from the get go is, ‘if you’re good enough, you’re old enough.’ It really doesn't matter how old you are. We’ve had a lot of guys we felt like were good enough and we could find roles for them. When we were able to find those roles, those guys excelled and did a good job depending on what we felt was best for us to take away from the team we were playing. A lot of guys embraced those roles, and that equated to a lot of guys playing. So, we want to reward guys that work hard and are ready to play.”