Former Georgia Bulldogs greats line up to hail 2021 defense

Georgia defenders smother Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez to bring up third down and 16 yards during the first quarter Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. Georgia won 30-13. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)
Caption
Georgia defenders smother Kentucky running back Chris Rodriguez to bring up third down and 16 yards during the first quarter Saturday, Oct. 16, 2021, at Sanford Stadium in Athens. Georgia won 30-13. (Curtis Compton / Curtis.Compton@ajc.com)

Credit: Curtis Compton / curtis.compton@ajc.com

As an expert witness for ESPN, David Pollack studies college football almost forensically, breaking down hours of video and getting lost in the high grass of schemes and tendencies.

That doesn’t mean that when he’s watching Georgia play defense, the experience doesn’t also connect with something a little more primal.

“I can’t use the exact words I would usually use (when watching his alma mater on D),” he chuckled.

“It’s mesmerizing. It’s amazing,” Pollack said, settling on more appropriate language.

The Bulldogs defense – its dominance spelled out by the paltry 6.6 points and 207 yards allowed per game, both tops in the country by a fer piece – has led a lot of people on a hunt for a higher adjective. And not just those around the fringes. Among the most impressed are some of this defense’s most legendary predecessors, the very people who should be the hardest to impress. These 2021 Bulldogs hit so hard their ancestors feel it. And not by just those in the US of A.

There’s Georgia’s career leading tackler, the late-1970s vintage linebacker Ben Zambiasi, intercepted this week as he was leaving work as a golf greenskeeper in Windsor, Ontario. He doesn’t equivocate even a little when he calls this Bulldogs D, “Probably one of the best defenses ever, if not the best, right?”

There’s the defensive back who had five picks during that blessed title year of 1980, taking a break from his fall canning in the North Georgia hill country (his pickled okra always is a big hit). Watching these kids fly to the ball is like a tonic for old bones. “They don’t realize it now, but what they’re going through and what they can accomplish is quite remarkable,” Scott Woerner said. “They’ve inspired me each week as tough and hard as they play. I know what I experienced way back when, and to know they’re going through the same thing gives me a good, warm feeling.”

We may live in a time of offensive entitlement, when the old saw about defense winning championships flirted with obsolescence. Why, even the losers of the past seven national championship games averaged scoring more than 25 points per game. But here is a defense to once more balance the scales and restore a proud Georgia trademark that dates to titled times.

Why, it reminds Woerner of what Erk Russell, the most colorful and colloquial defensive coordinator ever, used to preach 40 years ago: “If we score, we may win. If they score, we may lose. If they never score, we will never lose.”

“We had the mentality,” Woerner said of Georgia’s last championship defense, “that no matter how far they get down the field, they’re not getting in that end zone.”

Frank Ros, a linebacker, was the captain of the 1980 defense, the standard by which all Georgia defenses that follow are measured. From retirement in Kennesaw, he sees today “a strong leadership group of guys, and they really rally around each other.”

“They have a common purpose, and they’re really buying into it. That’s what we had. We had a common purpose,” Ros said. “We didn’t want anybody to score on us. We’d bend but wouldn’t break. Inside the 20, we’d buckle down, and they do the same thing. They play with a lot of camaraderie together, you can tell. You watch them, they’re excited and they’re competing with each other, which is what you want.”

It all starts up front with the 2021 unit, where the likes of 6-foot-6, 340-pound Jordan Davis and 6-3, 310-pound Jalen Carter bring to bear an overwhelming combination of size and quickness. “Without holding ‘em, I don’t think you can block ‘em,” Woerner said.

If light can barely escape from this front wall, what chance does a running back have? Ask Kentucky’s Chris Rodriguez. The SEC’s leading rusher gained just seven yards against the Bulldogs last weekend.

So good and so deep is the front line that Pollack looks at senior Devonte Wyatt, sometimes lost in the large shadow of the others, and declares, “He’s the best defensive player in Alabama’s front seven right now if you put him on there.”

Then fill in behind the giants an even deeper collection of linebackers led by Nakobe Dean, whose calling card is a disciplined speed and an instinct to flock around a football. They all play an inordinate amount of time on the other side of the line of scrimmage and strip all the glamor from a quarterback’s life. And they come at him from all angles – seven different players have at least shared the sack lead in seven different games.

For a guy known to regularly arrive quickly at the sternum of a ball carrier – like 467 tackles between 1974-77 – Zambiasi recognizes what sets this defense apart. It’s so obvious. “Anybody who watches, it’s their speed. And they arrive at the ball with a nasty attitude – it’s really fun to watch,” he said.

For a three-time first-team All-American and career sack leader at UGA – like 36 of them between 2001-04 – Pollack revels in the kind of mayhem he once so furiously sowed. He’s proud to claim kinship to such an easily relatable defense.

“They all play with physicality,” he said. “All of those guys play with a level of aggression that’s a lot higher than most. That’s what you love to see. You love to see people putting hands on people and moving people against their will. That’s my favorite thing about football – you get to move people against their will.”

The return of defense to a starring role is bound to strike a harmonic chord deep inside any classic defender.

“I love it,” Ros said. “The last couple years, you kind of get frustrated, but you understand it because it’s such a wide-open game now. That’s what makes it so much more special what these guys are doing – they’re playing wide-open offenses and still dominating.”

Looking ahead, past the rest of the regular season to the promise of possible championship games to come, the ESPN expert spots certain challenges to Georgia’s defensive dominance. Teams like Ohio State and Oklahoma and, yes, Alabama, could be troublesome if they’re still around.

“All three have certain key ingredients: They can throw on time, they can throw in rhythm, they have great offensive philosophies and they have mobile quarterbacks,” Pollack said. “We’re not bulletproof by any stretch. Not beyond reproach.”

Some are in a hurry to proclaim the 2021 Georgia defense as good, or better than, any ever to play there. “They are special – they’re not just ‘going’ to be. To me, the only thing that’s going to get in the way is themselves,” Zambiasi said.

We’ll leave it here with more temperate language.

“It’s early in the season to talk about legacy – this would be the definition of rat poison for coach (Kirby) Smart,” Pollack said. “If you look at the numbers and defensive efficiency and you look at the gold standard – 2011 Alabama – they’re on pace to be something like that. A lot of football left and a lot of opportunities where things can change, but if they stay healthy on the defensive side of the football with those guys up front and the multiplicity of what they have with their scheme, it could be a magical run. Could be.”

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