Georgia defense faces challenge in season opener against Austin Peay

Georgia linebacker D'Andre Walker recorded 40 tackles in 2017, tied for seventh on the team, but ranked second in tackles for loss (13.5) and in sacks (5.5). Defensive back J.R. Reed recorded 79 tackles in 2017, second on the team behind Roquan Smith, who left for the NFL. Reed also recorded five tackles for loss, 1.5 sacks and two interceptions. Cornerback Deandre Baker ranks second among 2018 returning players in tackles and interceptions in 2017. Linebacker Monty Rice recorded 22 tackles as a freshman

The Georgia Bulldogs defense will face a challenge in Week 1 against Austin Peay’s run-heavy offense.

In 2017, Austin Peay ranked second in scoring offense and total offense in the Ohio Valley Conference. The Governors averaged 25.1 points per game, 5.7 yards per play, and rushed for 32 touchdowns. According to Georgia defensive lineman Julian Rochester, Week 1 will be a challenge as well as a learning experience for the Bulldogs' defense.

“It’s going to teach us how to be focused,” Rochester said. “This game will teach us how to play within the framework of the defense. I feel like it’s going to be a challenge for us to stay in our gaps and do what we are supposed to do this week.”

Georgia and Austin Peay meet at 3:30 p.m. Saturday at Sanford Stadium, in a game to be televised by ESPN.

The Governors led the Ohio Valley Conference in rushing offense, averaging 262.6 yards per game on the ground. Facing a dominating run game in Week 1, Bulldogs’ inside linebacker Juwan Taylor said there’s been one focus as the defense prepares for the Governors’ offense.

“Just stopping the run,” Taylor said. “That’s our main focus, stopping the run.”

Austin Peay’s top four leading rushers in 2017 returned to aid the Governors’ offense. Among those players is Austin Peay quarterback Jeremiah Oatsvall. In 2017, Oatsvall threw for 1,148 yards and seven touchdowns while gaining 453 yards and six touchdowns on the ground. From studying film, Rochester recognizes the challenge that the defense faces against a dual-threat quarterback such as Oatsvall.

“The quarterback is really smart on what we’ve seen on film,” Rochester said. “He has the ability to make all throws, so I just feel like this is the time with an offense like this, as a defense, we need to take a step ahead and really hone in on the game plan so we can do what we’re supposed to.”

In 2017, Georgia's defense ranked sixth in sacks (34) and second in total tackles (951) among SEC teams. Nationally, Georgia ranked sixth in total defense.

However, Georgia’s defense lost Butkus Award winner Roquan Smith, linebacker Lorenzo Carter, linebacker Davin Bellamy, safety Dominick Sanders, defensive tackle Trenton Thompson, defensive back Aaron Davis, and defensive tackle John Atkins after a historic 2017 season. Even with the key losses, Smart believes his defense is equipped up front to handle a run-heavy offense early in the season.

“I think we have a good physical front,” Smart said. “I’m not saying they’re going to come in and dominate and be able to run the ball every down on us, but I think what they can do is get explosive plays, because they affect you on the perimeter. If you don’t play the option right, which is not something that we practice against every day, it can become a problem for you.”