Thursday’s Round 1 of NFL draft could prove historic for UGA defenders

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

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

Georgia is the reigning national champion. The Bulldogs were handed a nice trophy. They had a parade. They were ranked No. 1 most of the season. Even when they lost the SEC Championship game, they weren’t in danger of missing the College Football Playoff. They then beat the teams ranked above them by an aggregate 38 points.

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We know this because we saw it happen. We know the saga of Stetson Bennett, the most intriguing player in the history of college football. We know Kirby Smart’s decision to deploy Bennett over JT Daniels came up trumps in the end, which is all that matters. We know Georgia’s defense was among the mightiest ever.

Strange though it sounds, the final chapter on Georgia’s championship season remains unwritten. The NFL draft is at hand. Five Bulldogs defenders could be taken Thursday in Round 1. That would be a first.

The record for first-rounders from one school in one draft is six, held jointly by Miami in 2004 and Alabama last year. Ohio State saw five players go in Round 1 in 2006 and 2016. So did LSU in 2020, Miami in 2002 and USC in 1968. Those seven classes were a mix of offense and defense. Never have five defenders from one school gone in Round 1 of the same draft.

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Seven Georgia defenders were named to the SEC’s all-conference first or second teams in 2021. Travon Walker wasn’t among them. Come Thursday, there’s a real chance Walker will be the first player drafted. Was he as stellar a collegian as Jordan Davis or Nakobe Dean? No. But that’s the point.

This was South Carolina coach Shane Beamer after his team lost 40-13 to the Bulldogs: “They’ve got like a hundred 5-star football players on their defense. They have a defensive lineman that weighs 340 pounds and runs better than anybody on this (Zoom) call. They’ve got 5-star defensive backs. They’re big, physical and fast. Other than that, they’re really freakin’ good. … There wasn’t some magical scheme they came out with tonight. They’ve got 5-star recruits everywhere.”

Yes, they were gifted. Yes, they were superbly coached. What made the Bulldogs all but impregnable was that they had so many moving parts. According to Rivals via Pro Football Focus, Walker played 60% of Georgia’s snaps. No other defensive lineman worked more than 42%, not even Davis (38%). That defense stands as an object lesson. That defense is what comes of stacking 5-stars atop 5-stars.

In his most recent mock draft, ESPN’s Mel Kiper had Walker at No. 3 overall, Davis at No. 17, Dean at No. 18, Devonte Wyatt at No. 27 and Lewis Cine at No. 32. That’s three linemen, one linebacker and one defensive back. Kiper had two more Bulldogs – linebackers Quay Walker and Channing Tindall – going before the midpoint of Round 2.

That would make seven players from one unit – Tindall, Kiper notes, “never even made a start” – populating the first 45 selections. That’s outrageous. But it’s not crazy. It’s how Georgia won it all with a former walk-on at quarterback. Defensive excellence kept the Bulldogs in every game. The utilitarian offense didn’t put its defense in bad spots. (Jake Camarda’s punting didn’t hurt.) Defensive depth wore down opposing offenses, which meant opposing defenses never rested long.

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Georgia trailed Alabama 18-13 with 8:10 remaining in the title game. The Bulldogs won 33-18. Their final touchdown came on Kelee Ringo’s interception return. This surely was Smart’s vision for the best of his Georgia teams, which might have been the best of all Georgia teams. This was proof that defense, even in the 21st century, can still prevail.

The two previous national champs – LSU and Bama – took their titles with irresistible offenses. Apart from one Saturday at Mercedes-Benz Stadium, Georgia’s defense resisted everything. LSU’s 2019 titlists scored 105 points in two playoff games; the next year, Alabama managed 83. The Bulldogs’ two playoff opponents mustered 29 points.

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The greatest accolade for Georgia’s defense could come Thursday night. We knew a while ago that this was a defense of brutish beauty. Should five defenders go in Round 1, that defense would become certifiably historic.