SEC spring practice preview: Georgia

Georgia Bulldogs
2009: 8-5 (4-4)

Stanford isn’t the only team installing the 3-4 defense this week in spring practice. When the Georgia Bulldogs take the field on Thursday for the start of their spring campaign, new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham will begin the process of reshaping a defense that allowed big plays and huge point totals to its opponents in 2009.

Willie Martinez’s 4-3 scheme will be scrapped in Athens, replaced by a system that will turn defensive ends into outside linebackers, defensive tackles into edge rushers and a makeover that will see the depth chart written in pencil — specifically in the early stages of spring.

Head coach Mark Richt decided change was necessary after seeing the defense allow at least 34 points on five occasions in 2009. The new members of the coaching staff will maximize the time they have on the practice field with the returning players on defense after receiving an overwhelmingly positive response since Grantham’s arrival on campus.

“The biggest thing is Coach Grantham has a vision for what this defense is going to look like, what the body types are at each position,” Richt told “So he and (the other coaches) have looked at the film, and Todd has been describing what he’s looking for in each spot, and (they) just fit what they see to the position that he envisions.”

One player who likely will make a seamless transition to outside linebacker is Justin Houston, who had 7.5 sacks last season while playing defensive end. Speedy Cornelius Washington could also flourish as a pass rusher after playing as an undersized end.

The Dawgs did lose three defensive tackles, so filling the nose tackle spot will be essential as the team changes schemes. Look for DeAngelo Tyson to get the first crack at the job.

While the secondary is the least affected area of a defense transitioning to the 3-4, the Bulldogs do have to replace three starters, including both safeties. However, the unit finished tenth in the conference in pass defense last year, giving up a league-high 25 touchdowns, so improvement was needed no matter who was or wasn’t returning in 2010. Losing Reshad Jones to the NFL early does hurt, so Baccari Rambo and early-enrolled junior-college transfer Jakar Hamilton will compete to fill the vacancy left by Jones. Cornerback Branden Smith, who contributed on various offensive packages last season, will also have to take on an increased role on defense.

And don’t forget about top defensive recruit Alec Ogletree, who in time should flourish at either safety or linebacker. He should make an impact on special teams in the meantime.

While plugging in holes at defensive tackle and in the secondary will be important schematically, the Bulldogs will also have to find new vocal leaders on the defensive side of the ball. And there’s also the small problem of replacing linebacker Rennie Curran, the team’s leading tackler for the past two seasons.

Losing players to graduation and the NFL is one thing, but shuffling in young players to an entirely new system is another. Grantham knows that it will be a process.

“It’s critical you define the role for each player, so when they leave in the summer, (they know), ‘Here’s what you can do to improve yourself, what you can work on,’” Grantham said. “That way when we come back, everybody’s got an understanding.”

On the offensive side of the ball, the Bulldogs return 10 starters — with the notable exception being the quarterback. None of the candidates to take over under center have any significant experience, with the speedy and athletic junior Logan Gray receiving only mop-up duty while serving as the backup last season. The problem is that he doesn’t look to have the ingredients to be a successful signal caller in the SEC.

Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger are both redshirt freshmen who are more prototypical pocket passers than Gray. Murray can throw and run well, while Mettenberger is a 6-5 gunslinger who has drawn comparisons to former Bulldog and current Detroit Lion Matthew Stafford. Mettenberger, however, might still be a year away.

“The way we're viewing it going into the spring,” offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach Mike Bobo said of the competition, “it's wide open.”

It will be interesting to see if any of the quarterback candidates create separation this spring or if Richt and the offensive staff will have to wait on a decision until the fall.

It will also be interesting to see how Bulldogs fans react to Richt if Georgia stumbles out of the gate in 2010. After the team finished with its worst record under Richt in ’09, his coaching seat has become a little warmer. Although he is 90-27 with three league title game appearances in nine seasons at UGA, Richt is 2-7 against Florida, and the Gators have outscored the Dawgs 90-27 in the last two contests. Shaking up the defensive staff showed that Richt knew changes needed to be made. Will it be enough, however, to stave off his detractors in the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately landscape of college football?

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