Don’t be distracted, it’s defense that defines these Bulldogs

Georgia linebacker Azeez Ojulari (13) makes life miserable for Auburn quarterback Bo Nix in Athens. (Curtis Compton/Atlanta Journal-Constitution/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

In wrangling earlier this year for immediate eligibility for transfer offensive lineman Cade Mays, his attorney threw out the now infamous phrase “toxic environment” when describing Mays' situation at Georgia.

Mays very well may learn just how toxic the environment in Athens can be for those based on the opposite sideline. For he returns Saturday with his new team, Tennessee.

To most opposing offenses that don’t include Joe Burrow, the Bulldogs' defense is as noxious as a bus-stop restroom. It is an EPA Superfund Site of speed, size and bad intent.

Through the first two games of the Georgia season, we have been distracted by the revelations at quarterback. We have looked for the vaunted running game to get up to speed. But the real spine of this team now, and going forward, runs through the defense.

Isn’t that just the way Kirby Smart likes it? Although do not put it to him that “his” defense is sowing a special kind of havoc thus far this season.

“It’s not my defense,” he said Tuesday, as he continued his quest to correct every questioner in America.

“It’s the University of Georgia’s defense. It’s coach (Dan) Lanning and the defensive staff and the defensive players. I’m not sitting here trying to take credit for something those guys have done. I certainly put blood, sweat and tears in with the rest of them, but those guys put a lot of hard work in, making decisions.”

All of this unit’s ownership should be feeling pretty good about themselves. So, everyone form a line and take a little piece of credit.

It can be argued the greatest joy in watching these Dogs thus far comes when the other team has the ball. While too early to make big bold proclamations, you could so far as to say this defense has the feel of one that can be historically stout.

How much fun was it Saturday for those of Georgia proclivities to witness Auburn quarterback Bo Nix just dissolve beneath the relentlessness of the Bulldogs defense? By the end of that one, so pressured was he that poor Nix looked to be in the grips of a full body cramp every time he tried to throw a ball.

The reviews, of course, have been fabulous through the first two games against Arkansas and Auburn. The Georgia defense was good a year ago, leading the college world in fewest points allowed (12.6 per game). This young season it has given up only eight a game. The Bulldogs are ranked third nationally in rushing defense – 58.0 yards per game – a measurement of toughness almost as accurate as the number of scars on a boxer.

Tennessee coach Jeremy Pruitt, who has seen a fair share of good D while stationed at places such as Alabama and Georgia, now faces the nightmarish prospect of moving the ball on one of his old employers. And that just never seems to get easier.

Those manning the defense at UGA, he said, “Don’t give up a lot of yards running the football. They can play man coverage. They are very multiple. Sound fundamentally. They play hard. Play with a good edge, good toughness. And they play a lot of guys.” A succinct diagram of a complete defense. And he wasn’t just blowing coach smoke.

The rebirth of Tennessee football under Pruitt – the Volunteers have won eight consecutive – has come with special emphasis on the line of scrimmage. As such, the Vols' O-line is loaded with some of the land’s most highly recruited big-and-tall shoppers. Their running game is correspondingly dangerous – they rushed for 232 yards and four touchdowns last week against Missouri.

That makes the matchup vs. Georgia’s defense all the more appetizing.

To Smart’s mind, the definition of a great defense revolves around, “relentless effort, reckless abandon, constant pressure and pursuit, not giving up explosives (long plays).”

“We’ve done a good job of that, but also did probably play one of our worst defensive games last year against Tennessee in terms of tackling, getting pushed around, big plays. That was not indicative of who we are or what we want to be,” he said, ever the coach looking for flaws. That bad defensive game for Georgia consisted of giving up a 73-yard touchdown reception early, falling behind 14-10 at the start of the second quarter, and not giving up another point.

Asked what he wanted the identity of this defense to be, linebacker Nakobe Dean said, “A hard-nosed defense. A disciplined, hard-nosed defense. We play tough and are more conditioned than anybody out there – that’s the identity we want to have.”

So far, that is exactly the image this defense is projecting. You start with a preseason All-SEC Goliath in the middle of the line – Jordan Davis doesn’t have a height and weight, he has a ZIP code. Add all kinds of speed on edges, a ball-hungry secondary, depth and a wealth of experience (36 players on defense played 100 or more snaps a year ago).

Put that all together and you have a combination as toxic to opponents as any relationship ever spawned by a Kardashian.

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