July 25, 2009

Defense hungry for success

NCAA rules don't allow Mark Richt or his assistant to lay eyeballs on their players while they are going through summer workouts. But based on what he's hearing, his Bulldogs are feeling some serious hunger pangs.

These pangs have nothing to do with food.

After finishing 10th in the SEC in total defense, Richt said he senses a renewed attitude from players on Georgia's defensive side, a new attitude that suggests that maybe the old "Junkyard Dawg" spirit of old isn't quite a thing of the past.

"I like defensively the fact that we're going to be hungry, maybe hungrier than we've been in a long time," Richt said. "You take Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins, Kade Weston, DeAngelo Tyson, Brandon Wheeling, a walk-on who we have high hopes for, the interior defensive line, Rennie Curran, Akeem Dent, linebackers right up the guy. You talk Reshad Jones, Bryan Evans at safety. That's strong up the middle. You need that."

Richt conceded a little help on the edge would be welcomed, too.

Georgia ranked eighth in the league with just 24 sacks, including just 9.5 that were attributed to defense ends.

"They feel like they've got something to prove," Richt said. "Historically, since I've been at Georgia, our defensive end position has been highly productive. We've had many first- and second-team All-SEC performers. We've had guys lead the league in sacks. Last year we fell short of what was normal for us."

There were a couple of reasons Richt is confident saying that happened.

First were the injuries.

Five defensive players currently on Georgia's two-deep preseason depth chart - Owens, Roderick Battle, Kade Weston, Darius Dewberry and Marcus Washington - each missed at least three games last year with Owens and Washington sitting out the entire year.

No. 2 was the fact that the Bulldogs got away from practicing the way that they've always done in the past.

"What we did last year - at my direction - was back off some of the those practice sessions in full pads with the intention of playing full speed as far as tackling to the ground, cutting below the waist, just playing football because we got to the point where we were so thin at some positions," Richt said. "If we lost one more guy, we were going to be in trouble with just having a guy that would know what to do."

But the injuries didn't stop.

At one point last preseason, defensive ends coach Jon Fabris had only one healthy player - Jarius Wynn - available to workout.

This obviously put a severe crimp in what the Bulldogs were able to do, putting Richt in a position he's never been before as a head coach.

"We normally have three scrimmages to try to and determine who our starters should be the backups should, but also to hone our skills at playing football tackling, playing with speed, energy and intimidation on defense," Richt said. "By our No. 2 scrimmage last year, I made the decision to thud rather than go full speed. As soon as it was over I knew that I made a mistake because you don't get good at defense by doing that."

A healthy Owens should help the Bulldogs do better against the run.

When the senior went down in last year's opener against Georgia Southern, it put a severe crimp in the overall ability of the Bulldogs, particularly in their effort to stop the run.
Last year, the Bulldogs ranked sixth in the conference in rush defense, giving up 122.3 yards per game, but with Owens back, don't be surprised if that number goes down.

At least that's what Owens believes will happen.

"I love our defense," Owens said. "We've got some new things for this season. To win games and be successful you have to play defense and stop the ball, stop the run."

Richt just hopes that the injury bug which bit the team doesn't make a repeat appearance.

As Georgia gets ready to kick off preseason drills Aug. 4, most of the injured defensive players are expected to be cleared to return.

That list includes Battle (shoulder, neck), Cornelius Washington (forearm) and Dobbs (fifth metacarpal) with Brandon Wood (shoulder, wrist), Neland Ball (patella tendon), Darius Dewberry (shoulder), Jeremy Longo (labrum) expected to be cleared shortly thereafter.

Richt certainly has his fingers crossed.

"I just hope I'm not put in that position again to have to make that decision (about less tackling drills)," Richt said. "But if I don't flinch, we're going to keep practicing the way you've got to practice to play defense. Hopefully, we learned a good lesson there."

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