On Saturday in Athens, Georgia’s G-Day game was not one that featured a tremendous amount of offense.
There was not an offensive touchdown by either team in the first half of the game and just 34 points were scored in total. But to those watching, it was clear that the lack of explosive offense was not as much a knock on the Georgia offense as it was a validation of a Georgia defense that came into the game with something to prove.
The defense that the Bulldogs will field in 2018 will look much different, personnel wise, from the defense that carried the 2017 Georgia team that won an SEC title and played for a national championship.
Georgia lost Roquan Smith, Lorenzo Carter, Davin Bellamy, Dominick Sanders, Trenton Thompson, John Atkins, Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish, among others, from last season’s defense, which ranked sixth nationally in both scoring and total defense. Smith will likely be drafted in the top 20 picks of the 2018 NFL Draft on Thursday and several of those other players will hear their names called during the draft at some point, as well.
But on G-Day, the new Georgia defense showed that it has the potential to be great also.
The defenses of the red and black teams combined for 11 sacks on Saturday and the Black defense, which is the first-team defense, tallied three interceptions to help lead its team to a 21-13 win.
And while the defense at Georgia is now expected to be good every year because of the defensive prowess of head coach Kirby Smart, the Bulldogs feel that their ability to turn the ball over and create negative plays came together on Saturday.
"I feel like we had a bunch of turnovers,” senior outside linebacker D’Andre Walker said. “Me, myself, I dropped an interception but at the same time, we weren't getting those [turnovers] in practice. So that's what we were preaching. We still didn't get enough tackles for loss so we really didn't reach our goals as a whole. But there is always room for improvement, as far as that aspect."
While the Georgia defense, particularly the first teamers, performed at a high level on G-Day, it is important to note the circumstances.
The Georgia offense was playing a style that focused more on getting comfortable in the passing game, opening up the chance for more sacks and interceptions. The offenses combined to throw the ball 81 times on the day.
And the sacks figure is also a cloudy one. Quarterbacks wear non-contact jerseys and cannot be tackled, as they would be in a real game. But despite those circumstances, Georgia seemed comfortable and happy with the way it played on the defensive end.
"It plays in our favor when it is a pass situation,” Smart said. “We are more athletic in the pass rush than we are stout in stopping the run. We've got to get bigger and more physical on the defensive line to be the team we were or be the team we want to be defensively. We're not there yet. [But] I was pleased with the way they competed."
But the aspect of Georgia’s performance that made it so impressive was in regards to who was playing well.
Under-the-radar players like linebacker Monty Rice (14 tackles) and William Poole (one interception, started at the star position) showed that the Bulldogs are grooming and producing players that can step in right away to help fill the void of their departed stars. Outside linebacker Keyon Brown (two sacks), defensive backs Eric Stokes (two pass breakups) and K.J. Smith (two pass breakups and one interception) and early enrollee Brenton Cox (five tackles, one sack) also made some plays after not playing significant roles in the past.
The defense also got good production from the veterans that it needs to step up even more. Walker had two sacks on the day, senior cornerback Deandre Baker returned an interception for a touchdown off of Jake Fromm, junior Tyrique McGhee broke up two passes and senior defensive lineman Jonathan Ledbetter had a sack.
And several of those individual performances came against a first-team offense that was led by one of the nation’s most promising quarterbacks in Fromm, the reigning SEC Freshman of the Year.
The 2018 Georgia defense will not have the same steady, experienced faces that the 2017 defense had. But if G-Day showed anything, it’s that Georgia’s defense has the ability to be great once again, regardless of the popularity of the players on that side of the ball.
Not only does the defense have the ability to be great once again, it absolutely expects to be playing at that level once the fall comes around.
"We've just got to have a good offseason, a good fall camp, good workouts in the summer,” Rice said. “We're gonna be a good defense. We want to be great on defense. For that to happen, we've just got to keep working. And that [G-Day performance] was just a little taste of what Georgia football is going to be this year on defense."