- Chris Low, ESPN Senior Staff Writer
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Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has seen the figures.
The Bulldogs are losing 12 players on defense who started at least two games for them last season, and as many as eight of those players could end up being drafted in April.
“I guess I look at it a little differently,” Grantham said. “We’ve got nine starters coming back who started in one game or more last year. We really started 21 different guys last year, and in the last two years, we’ve had 24 different lineups.
“We’ve been able to adjust, and we will again. I like the young talent on this defense and what we have coming in. To me, it gets back to developing players. It’s going to be an exciting and aggressive spring, but we’ve been aggressive around here for the last couple of years. We’ll coach them hard and see to it that they learn how to compete.
“You’ve got to learn how to win a position before you can help us win a game.”
That mindset has served the Bulldogs well the past two seasons. They’re coming off back-to-back SEC championship game appearances, and their ability to keep teams out of the end zone and force turnovers has been a big reason for their success.
In the past two seasons, Georgia has forced 62 turnovers, the second most in the SEC behind LSU (63). The Bulldogs were third in the SEC last season in scoring defense in league games. They allowed 18.1 points per game.
“The biggest thing is points allowed and turnovers. That’s how you win ballgames,” Grantham said.
What the Bulldogs didn’t do as well was stop the run, and it cost them against Alabama in the 32-28 SEC championship game loss. The Crimson Tide rolled up 350 rushing yards and manhandled the Bulldogs in the second half.
The takeway from that game for Grantham was pretty simple.
Georgia needs to play more players up front and tackle better from the inside linebacker positions.
“We did some good things in that game,” Grantham said. “We blocked a field goal and ran it back for a touchdown. We were really good on third down, and got a turnover in the red zone. The thing we didn’t do was stop the run in the second half.
“We’ve got to play more players up front and keep them fresh, and from the inside linebacker position, we’ve got to learn to tackle backs like (Eddie Lacy). Those are two things we’ve got to do better.”
Georgia’s overall rushing defensive statistics weren’t pretty last season. The Bulldogs finished 77th nationally in rushing defense. But they also played a pair of option teams (Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech) in back-to-back weeks in November, and those two teams combined for 125 rushing attempts, and both amassed more than 300 yards on the ground.
“It got a little skewed,” Grantham said. “The biggest thing for me is what do we need to do to be good in SEC play. In SEC stats, we gave up 3.3 yards per carry, and it was 4.1 yards overall.”
Grantham, who coached in the NFL for 11 seasons before coming to Georgia in 2010, took some heat from fans when he interviewed for the New Orleans Saints’ defensive coordinator job the day after signing day.
The Philadelphia Eagles were also interested and wanted to set something up in January, but Grantham wasn’t willing to do anything that might hurt the Bulldogs’ class prior to signing day.
Even then, he wasn’t looking to get out at Georgia. It was more that he felt he owed it to himself and his family to at least meet with Saints coach Sean Payton.
Grantham is one of the highest paid defensive coordinators in college football at $825,000 per year. But the salaries for NFL defensive coordinators have sky-rocketed. Just recently, former Florida defensive coordinator Dan Quinn got a three-year deal worth $5.7 million to go to the Seattle Seahawks, so roughly $1.9 million per year.
How many coaches anywhere wouldn’t listen for that kind of cash?
“I look at it more as a compliment to what we’ve been able to do here, and a compliment to the SEC,” Grantham said. “I have a great job here and enjoy it here, and my family loves it here. But the first thing you do in any profession when something comes along is say, ‘Is this something I should consider for my family and for our future?’
“Sometimes you can’t just do that with a phone call, but need to meet face-to-face. That’s really what it was.”
As Grantham prepares for the start of spring practice on March 2, he said it’s paramount that the Bulldogs develop more depth up front and find some playmakers in the secondary.
He said junior end Ray Drew has had a great offseason so far, and he’s also eager to see redshirt freshman Jonathan Taylor on the practice field. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes is on campus and will go through spring practice along with John Atkins, who spent last year at Hargrave (Va.) Military Academy.
“They’re all big and athletic, and we’re going to need contributions from all of them up front,” Grantham said.
Sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who was essentially a starter for the Bulldogs from the Florida game on, has star potential written all over him. He’s the heir apparent to step into Jarvis Jones’ role as the finisher on this defense.
One of the key questions facing the Bulldogs this spring is where to play sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons. He played safety last season, but Grantham said there’s a chance he could move to outside linebacker.
“He’s more of that guy who can walk out and cover a slot when they go to three wides,” Grantham said. “That’s why I wanted him to learn the nickel stuff last year, what we call the star. He learned all the underneath zones and what an outside linebacker has to do. So if he transitions back to outside linebacker, it will all be carry-over for him.”
“We’ll find out what they can do and what they can handle, because athletically, they can help us,” Grantham said. “We’ll work hard to develop those guys at safety.”