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Why Georgia's defense can reload

4/24/2013

ATHENS, Ga. -- Unless you are Alabama, losing three potential first-round picks in one year is bound to affect your roster moving forward. So surely Georgia would be knocked for a loop with the possibility that John Jenkins, Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree could go Thursday on the draft's first day, right?

Maybe. But not as much as it might seem.

That's the case even though it's a defense losing those players, not a team in whole. Yet the Bulldogs will probably begin the season in the top 10 and picked to finish first or second in the division they have won the past two years.

Even though the loaded offense, led by quarterback Aaron Murray and running back Todd Gurley, is the primary catalyst -- and returns almost everyone from a unit that ranked No. 1 in the nation last season in yards per play -- the defense is not expected to become some sort of liability for the defending SEC East champs.

The Georgia defense did lose 12 players who started a game in 2012, but coordinator Todd Grantham told me a couple of weeks ago that nine who started at least one game are returning.

That includes Jordan Jenkins, the outside linebacker who started six games and registered eight tackles for a loss (five sacks) as a freshman. He came along as the season progressed, forcing the coaches to get him on the field more. Jenkins could be another Jones in the making, and he will get his shot to shine the next two falls.

Sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons is not one of those returning players who has a start to his credit, but he made enough of an impact this spring that Grantham could sometimes alter his system -- and employ a 3-3-5 from his base 3-4 -- to move the basketball player-shaped Harvey-Clemons (6-foot-5, 207 pounds) into a rangy, hybrid linebacker-safety role. That alignment typically plays well against spread-type offenses, such as the one UGA will see in the opener at Clemson. It's especially true if you have a versatile player like Harvey-Clemons.

Nearly 400 words in and we haven't gotten to the team's buzzed-about newcomers. Of the 10 January enrollees -- an especially high number, underscoring the need for immediate production -- six were defensive players. Grantham and coach Mark Richt told me some of the midterm guys demonstrated in the spring that they are ready to play, or that they will be by the end of August.

Safety Tray Matthews and corner Reggie Wilkerson were the names I had heard prior to my arrival a couple of days after the spring game, but both Grantham and Richt first mentioned middle linebacker candidate Reggie Carter's potential to be an impact player.

Grantham said Carter recorded an interception in each of the team's spring scrimmages, showing some innate instinctiveness. He said Carter, listed at 6-1 and 224 pounds and from nearby Snellville, Ga., digests information well and seems to have a good, early grasp of the system. He could get into a rotation with inside linebackers such as junior Amarlo Herrera, who recorded 70 tackles a year ago starting opposite Ogletree.

Matthews "has all the skill sets you look for in a safety," Grantham said. And that's referring to a guy who should be attending prom right about now. He could easily be the opening-day starter at free safety. My buddy Seth Emerson, Macon's beat reporter in Athens, wrote recently that Georgia has not had a true freshman starter since Grantham arrived in 2010.

The coaches said Wilkerson "has taken some lumps" in his first spring, but that is no indictment for a corner in his first semester. Really, it's more of a testament to how quickly Carter and Matthews have adjusted.

Chris Mayes, plucked from the same junior college that produced Jenkins, could help with the rotation to replace Jenkins in the middle of the 3-4 line. He was another player who received mention from the coaches.

It's not as if Georgia is opening with an FCS opponent, though. I asked Richt if he had concerns about rolling out so many first-year players to debut at Clemson, which figures to be a borderline top-10 team.

"You try to keep the [class numbers] balanced, but it happens sometimes," Richt said. "I'm a little concerned. There is no dress rehearsal, other than going against each other. But these guys have ability, and we'll be able to roll more guys in, keep them fresh."

That was a point Grantham repeatedly circled back to. There might not be as many all-conference candidates on the field as last year, but there should be more depth at more positions. He said Georgia had as many different starting lineups in 2012 as anyone in the country, and that might again be the case this fall.

Even with so many pro prospects, Georgia's defense still regressed a bit last season. Its 5.18 yards per play allowed was a respectable 34th in the country, but it was seventh (4.46) in 2011 with largely the same group. The Bulldogs saw significant dips in run and pass defense, going from 15th nationally in yards per carry allowed in 2011 to 64th last season and fourth in yards per pass attempt allowed in 2011 to 55th last season.

So it will be interesting to see if the new-look unit can play at that same level -- maybe not top 10 in the nation, but up to the level at which last season's defense produced -- especially early on. In addition to the Clemson game, two more difficult matchups await the Bulldogs in September: South Carolina visits in Week 2, and LSU visits in Week 5.

"I see us getting better every practice," Grantham said. "We have no choice but to hit the ground running because of our September schedule."

Grantham himself was something of a recruit in the offseason. Before arriving at Georgia, he had been in the NFL for a decade. Philadelphia and New Orleans both reportedly had interest in hiring Grantham as defensive coordinator, but he ultimately opted to stay with the college game.

I asked him what he liked about both levels of football. As for college, he illustrated it by telling a story in which he was sitting in a Cracker Barrel with Jarvis Jones when Jones was deciding where he would transfer to from USC. He remembered Jones' nervousness about his future. Jones wondered how and where he could return from a neck injury that once prompted some doctors to tell him his career was over.

Grantham calmed Jones and convinced him that his 3-4 defense could feature Jones' pass-rushing skills. He told Jones that the scheme, along with his talent, would one day make him a star that the NFL would covet.

And here we are.

Jones is projected to go No. 15 to the Saints by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr. Analyst Todd McShay has him going No. 17 to the Steelers. Both teams have won Super Bowls in the past five years.

"I love the development, the chance to see a player go from that starting point to the finish line," Grantham said. "And now we've got more players to develop."