Georgia Bulldogs: Kevin Minter
Just as Georgia had 12 key defensive players to replace this fall, LSU actually set an NFL draft record with six defensive players selected in the 2013 draft's first two days. And just as the Bulldogs have discovered, it has been difficult for LSU to pick up exactly where it left off without players like Barkevious Mingo, Kevin Minter, Eric Reid, Sam Montgomery, Tharold Simon and Bennie Logan.
So as No. 9 Georgia (2-1) and No. 6 LSU (4-0) prepare to meet on Saturday, they do so with young in places defenses that have delivered uneven results. Neither group lack potential, but they both have dealt with the understandable lapses that typically arise when new players take over for established stars.
“I think our players are as talented as we've ever had and I think there's a maturity that needs to take place so they can play with their cleats headed north and south and ready to make a tackle and show the style of confidence, if you will, that other defenses that have played in this uniform have shown,” LSU coach Les Miles said. “I think that's coming. I see it, in last week, better in certain spots and certainly that's got to continue.”
In Saturday's win against Auburn, Miles' Tigers could not have been more impressive early. They limited Auburn to just 41 yards of offense in the first quarter in jumping out to a quick 21-0 lead. However, Auburn made it a more competitive game -- LSU still won 35-21 -- by generating 333 yards in the second half and running a whopping 85 plays against a suddenly reeling LSU defense that was facing its first legitimate test.
“Everybody probably mentally may have gotten a little bit down. We had a couple of calls that were questionable, but we've got to be able to shrug that off,” LSU defensive end Jordan Allen said. “We have a couple things happening and not sure what's going on and we're not communicating on some things and we'll get it straight.”
LSU's early schedule was much more generous toward its defensive rebuilding effort than was Georgia's. The Tigers played TCU, UAB, Kent State and Auburn in the first four games, with only the TCU game -- it was held at the Dallas Cowboys' stadium in Arlington, Texas -- being played away from Tiger Stadium.
Their defensive statistics reflect that advantage, as LSU is tied for third in the SEC in total defense (310 yards per game), is second against the pass (173.8 ypg), seventh against the run (136.2) and fifth in scoring (19.5 points per game).
Because its first two opponents were top-10 teams with impressive skill talent, Georgia's defense looks much worse on paper. The Bulldogs are 13th in the league in scoring defense (29.7 ppg), 11th in total defense (388.7 ypg), eighth against the run (143.3) and ninth against the pass (245.3 ypg).
However, they actually enter the LSU game after their best performance yet. In Saturday's 45-21 win against North Texas, Georgia surrendered just 7 rushing yards and 245 total yards -- nearly 400 fewer than the Bulldogs' offense generated that afternoon. Further, the Mean Green scored just one offensive touchdown -- the other two came on special-teams plays -- and otherwise sputtered on offense .
“I feel like we really stepped up this game,” Georgia sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons said. “We had the off week to kind of get everybody in the right spot or whatever, and I feel like we're really jelling together and really getting that chemistry that we're going to need next week against LSU.”
It was still far from a perfect effort, but Georgia has now allowed opponents to score just 13 points in their last 18 drives, dating back to halftime of the South Carolina game when the score was tied at 24-24 before the Bulldogs pulled away for a 41-30 win.
“You want to have confidence,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said of his defense after the North Texas win. “I don't think this bunch is going to be overconfident after this game. I think they did begin to play well together and I think they can be proud of what happened. It was a very good performance. But LSU's a good team, and we want them as confident as possible, but we don't want them to think they've arrived, that's for sure, because we've got a long way to go.”
Miles' coaching staff can certainly empathize with that sentiment, particularly as it prepares to face a Georgia team that ranks sixth nationally in total offense at 574 ypg -- in the Tigers' first true road game of the season, no less.
Inconsistency has characterized both defenses over the first month of the season, but they realize that excuses over inexperience have nearly lost their shelf life. The defense that is better at minimizing its mistakes on Saturday will almost certainly win what should be one of the most impactful games either team will play this fall.
Several of RecruitingNation's SEC sites will look this week at the players headed to the NFL combine, which begins Friday in Indianapolis, and other predraft camps. Today: Defensive linemen and linebackers.
Georgia’s time to shine in Indianapolis will arrive Monday, when the defensive linemen and linebackers take the field for their combine workouts. The Bulldogs will have six players on the field, including a trio -- John Jenkins, Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree -- who have a strong chance to become first-round draft picks in April.
- NG Kwame Geathers (Position rank: No. 14)
Strengths: Geathers’ greatest strength as a pro prospect is his size (6-foot-6, 355 pounds), which will likely convince an NFL team to draft him earlier than his college production might indicate. There is always a place in the league for oversized defensive linemen who can occupy multiple blockers, and Geathers certainly has the pedigree to become a longtime NFL performer, with several family members having played in the league.
Weaknesses: Of the draft-eligible juniors who opted to leave Georgia early, perhaps Geathers’ decision was the most questionable. He has never been a regular starter and was an inconsistent performer for much of his career. A team will likely draft him based on potential, but he still has a lot to work on before he becomes an NFL regular.
Comparison: Kade Weston. Much like Geathers, Weston was a massive interior lineman at Georgia several years back. The New England Patriots drafted him in the seventh round of the 2010 draft, but injuries kept him from playing for the team. He spent last season with the Edmonton Eskimos in the CFL.
Last fall, the SEC had eight players record 100-plus tackles, which was two more than in 2011.
Here's a look at the top tacklers in the SEC from 2012:
A.J. Johnson, LB, Tennessee: Johnson certainly didn't suffer a sophomore slump in Knoxville. He was all over the field for the Vols, leading the SEC with 138 total tackles. He notched 63 solo tackles and averaged 11.5 tackles per game.
Avery Williamson, LB, Kentucky: It seems like the Wildcats have had someone either near or at the top of the SEC when it comes to tackles the past few years, and it was Williamson's turn in 2012. He was second in the SEC with 135 tackles and led the league with 70 solo stops. He averaged 11.3 tackles per game.
Kevin Minter, LB, LSU: It was hard to find a busier defensive player in the SEC. Minter made all sorts of plays for the Tigers in 2012, and finished the year with 130 total tackles, including 55 solo. He averaged 10 tackles a game and racked up 17 solo tackles in LSU's 14-6 loss to Florida.
Cameron Lawrence, LB, Mississippi State: After ranking second in the SEC with 123 tackles in 2011, Lawrence registered 120 total tackles in 2012, including 54 solo. He averaged 9.2 tackles per game, but earned double-digit tackle totals in eight games.
Alec Ogletree, LB, Georgia: Even though he was suspended for the first four games of the season, Ogletree ended the year near the top of the SEC in the tackles column. He finished the season leading the Bulldogs with 111 tackles and 63 solo stops.
C.J. Mosley, LB, Alabama: Praised as one of Alabama's best and most complete defensive players last fall, Mosley registered 107 total tackles on the year and was second in the SEC with 66 solo stops.
Lamin Barrow, LB, LSU: Even with Minter running around all over the place, Barrow was still able to have a very productive fall with the Tigers. He grabbed 104 total tackles on the year, with 52 of them being solo stops.
Benardrick McKinney, LB, Mississippi State: He enjoyed a solid freshman campaign alongside Lawrence. He helped the veteran out by registering 102 tackles, with 45 of them being solo attempts.
I'm not perfect, but I'll try to be:
1. Johnny Manziel, QB, Texas A&M: Who has been more exciting than Johnny Football? The Aggies aren't 5-1 without him or his 1,600 passing yards, 676 rushing yards and 24 touchdowns.
2. Mike Gillislee, RB, Florida: He's powering Florida's offense and he's been the SEC's best back thus far. He's extremely explosive and is strong enough to bully his way to extra yards and wear down defenses.
In this era of hybrid roles, sometimes it’s difficult to distinguish whether somebody is a defensive end or an outside linebacker. The same goes for that outside linebacker/safety position we’re seeing so much of these days.
1. Georgia: It starts with senior outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC in sacks (13.5) and tackles for loss (19.5) last season. Junior Alec Ogletree is just as disruptive on the inside, and the Bulldogs have quality depth inside with seniors Michael Gilliard and Christian Robinson. Senior Cornelius Washington could end up playing some at both end and outside linebacker.
2. Alabama: Dont’a Hightower and Courtney Upshaw are both gone, but senior Nico Johnson and junior C.J. Mosley return as two of the top linebackers in the SEC. Mosley might be the best coverage linebacker in the league. The Crimson Tide have also recruited like mad, and younger players such as sophomore Jack linebacker Adrian Hubbard are ready to make their move.
3. Florida: Senior Jon Bostic and junior Jelani Jenkins are back to form the nucleus of a Florida defense that should again be one of the top units in the league. They racked up a combined 169 tackles last season. Senior Lerentee McCray missed time with a shoulder injury last season. With Ronald Powell recovering from an ACL tear, McCray factors in at the hybrid Buck position on the outside.
We're putting spring behind us and looking toward the fall with our post-spring power rankings:
1. LSU: The Tigers had one of the best springs around. Things were quiet off the field, and the offense rallied behind quarterback Zach Mettenberger. Coach Les Miles was very impressed with Mettenberger's play and maturity, and expects LSU's offense to be more balanced with him under center. LSU can still use four or five running backs as well. Defensively, the Tigers are stacked once again, especially up front with two potential first-rounders in ends Sam Montgomery and Barkevious Mingo. Questions surround the inexperienced linebackers, but Kevin Minter had a tremendous spring in the middle. On paper, LSU is equipped with the talent to make another title run, and gets Alabama at home this year.