ATHENS — The Georgia Bulldogs open spring practice one week from today. When they do, all eyes are going to be on the defensive side of the ball.
Defense — along with a ridiculous number of injuries — is why Georgia lost five games last season. And for the first time in 50 years, the Bulldogs will be entering a spring with a totally new defensive coaching staff.
Georgia got more than a little fortunate when it landed Jeremy Pruitt from Florida State to coordinate the defense. Not only did the Seminoles win the national championship, but they also led the nation in scoring defense (12.1 ppg), passing defense (156.6 ypg) and were third in total defense (281.4 ypg).
All that means for the Bulldogs is Pruitt — who was at Alabama before FSU — knows what a national championship-caliber defense looks like. And it’s pretty clear he’s not seeing one in its current form at UGA. Pruitt spoke of the every defensive player starting with a “clean slate” and being given an opportunity to show he can compete this spring. That might mean some of Georgia’s nine returning starters may play more, some may play less.
Pruitt’s system is not radically different from what Todd Grantham was running. It’s a 3-4 base, the Will outside linebacker once manned by Jarvis Jones and now Jordan Jenkins is now called a “Jack,” the inside ‘backers are now “Mike” and “Will” rather “Mike” and “Mo,” and the “Sam” linebacker comes off the field and is replaced by a “Star” in nickel (five defensive backs) situations.
But the most interesting thing I learned from talking to Pruitt this past week is he doesn’t plan on spending a lot of time on the playbook or terminology this spring. No, he’s interested only in determining who likes to compete and who can win one-on-one battle. He also wants to see the Bulldogs’ defenders trimmed down and sped up. That’s one of the reasons why J.J. Green and Tramel Terry have been moved from offense to defense.
“Our number one goal is to figure out who’re the right guys to be coaching,” Pruitt said. “So as far as scheme this spring, we’re going to work on fundamentals. We’re going to see who practices hard every day and who can carry out some details and we’ll figure out that and who’s the best to coach this fall. You (want to) find out who likes to compete. That’s what we’re trying to figure out. Who are the guys who want to compete every play every day. That tells you a little bit about who they are. We’ve seen a little bit of that in the offseason in mat drills. There are guys who practice well in shorts and practice well in pads. The big thing is trying to figure out who practices well in pads.”
Following are a few of the thoughts Pruitt shared when he met briefly with reporters last week …
Q: Did you ever get to move out of Will Friend’s basement?
A: “Got out of there. Got me a condo here. We’re not roommates any longer.”
Q: Spring practice starts the day these guys return from spring break. Any concerns about that?
A: “We let them leave to go on spring break with a message. Hopefully these guys will work out four or five times and come back in shape, because we’re going to go out there and hit it running. All the guys are eager. They’ve had a good offseason. Now it’s the next step. We’ve go out there and start practicing and see what kind of football players they are.”
Q: Do you see any parallels between what you’re facing at Georgia and what you faced at FSU when you took over about the same time last year?
A: “The big thing is I followed Coach (Mark) Stoops (at FSU). With his philosophy and Coach (Jimbo)Fisher’s, there was nothing there that needed to be fixed. They had been playing really good defense for quite some time. We changed, kind of, the scheme. But, yes, the players had an edge about them. They liked to compete and they were used to winning.”
Q: Do you see this group as having farther to go?
A: “I do know this: About two years ago, I was at Alabama and the defense here was pretty darn good. We played them in the SEC Championship game and they were one play away from beating us. But there were a lot of good players on that team; there were a lot of leadership guys on that team. Obviously, they’re all playing in the NFL, so there were a lot of knew faces last year. And, you know, when you have a team like was here in 2012, there’s going to be some growing pains the next year. And there were some.”
Q: Do you anticipate the new schemes and terminology being a challenge for the players seeing how there are so many returnees?
A: “If you look at what Georgia has done in the past, what Alabama has done in the past, what we did at Florida State last year, there are a lot of similarities. Coach Grantham coached with Coach Saban and we’re all kind of from the same tree. So from a schematic standpoint there’s going to be some similarities, which is a good thing. … The big thing is we’re not concerned as much about how much somebody can learn right now. We want to see who can get off blockers, who can tackle in space. Whoever can do that, then we’ll do as much as they can do with them in the fall.”
Q: You’ve been here about two months now. What have you determined to be some priorities that need to be addressed?
A: “We’re trying to get some of our bigger guys down. Personally, we feel like everybody’s a little bit heavy. We’d like to be faster. That’s just our preference, I guess. So we’re trying to slim up just a little, including the coaching staff.”
Q: I understand you lobbied to get J.J. Green from the offense. Why?
A: “The big thing is just a lack of numbers. You can never have too many corners. Obviously, I was a little bit familiar with J.J. (from recruiting). It’s pretty crowded back there at the running back spot. He wants an opportunity to play and this gives him a chance.”
Q: What will spring drills look like on your side of the ball?
A: “Every drill we’re doing this spring is going to be two-spotted. Everybody’s going to get the same amount of reps, so everybody gets the same amount of opportunities. I think that’ll be a little different than what’s been done here in the past.”