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University of Georgia defensive line Tyler Clark (52) tackles a University of South Carolina player during a game between the University of Georgia and the University of South Carolina at Williams-Brice Stadium in Columbia, South Carolina on Saturday, Sept. 8, 2018.

Georgia’s run defense hasn’t always been this highly touted.

Last year when Georgia defeated Florida, Kirby Smart was asked about his greatest concern going forward. His immediate response? 

“Rushing defense,” Smart said on Oct. 27, 2018. “We played better tonight, and that was a good team, but the rushing defense is concerning ... I get frustrated.” 

The Bulldogs ended the season by giving up 178 rushing yards in a loss to Texas in the Sugar Bowl, one month after allowing 157 rushing yards in the SEC championship against Alabama. They finished seventh in the SEC and 39th in the nation in rush defense after giving up 1,698 yards.

Look at them now. 

By all accounts, the Georgia run defense ranks as one of the best in the nation. It has yet to concede a touchdown, an honor no other team in the FBS can claim. The Bulldogs rank fifth in the country with 298 total opposing rushing yards. Through the first five games last year, Georgia had given up 541 yards. 

Some of the credit for the turnaround should go to the defensive line, a group Smart called one of the team’s weakest links after G-Day on April 20. It’s in the trenches where the running game is won or lost. 

“It starts up front with us,” defensive lineman Michael Barnett said. “We just have to hold the points and read blocks and make sure nothing comes in our gaps … We push everything that’s supposed to come on the inside and let the outside defenders handle what they have to handle.” 

While Georgia’s success starts with the defensive linemen, they aren’t the leading tacklers statistically. The linebackers and defensive backs have hogged most of the tackles for themselves. Inside linebacker Monty Rice, nickel back Mark Webb and safeties Richard LeCounte and J.R. Reed all have more than 20 tackles. 

Senior Tyler Clark leads the defensive linemen with 11 tackles, which is tied for seventh on the team. Devonte Wyatt and Barnett aren’t too far behind with 10 and nine tackles, respectively. 

Smart said Georgia’s tackling skills still have a long way to go. 

“We have to improve on that and get better because that’s a hole when you watch football in general,” Smart said. “Tackling tends to go downhill as the season goes, and we can’t let that happen. A lot of that starts with our defensive line, controlling [the runner] from getting out of there.”

Poor tackling can lead to more explosive plays. But unlike Georgia’s pass defense, which gave up a 73-yard touchdown pass against Tennessee on Oct. 5, the run defense has limited plays to no longer than Murray State quarterback Preston Rice’s 35-yard run. 

“It starts with stopping the run on first and second down,” senior defensive lineman Justin Young said. “Coach Smart wants us to stop the run first.”

One possible reason behind the front seven’s success is the quality of the opposing team’s running backs. Notre Dame’s Jafar Armstrong had to sit out against the Bulldogs due to an injury. Vanderbilt’s Ke’Shawn Vaughn has probably been Georgia’s toughest challenge.

As the opponents get tougher and the stakes get higher, Georgia will try to keep doing what it’s been doing. 

“Good things will happen if you just keep working and don’t really pride yourself on ‘Oh, you’re doing good, so let me just rest for a little bit,’” Barnett said. “No, every day is a work day. Every down is a work down.”

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