ATHENS, Ga. -- Like most of Georgia's defense, the Bulldogs' line had its moments of competence -- and even solid play -- in last Saturday's season-opening loss at Clemson.
The problem across the board was that there weren't enough of those moments, and the line knows it must turn in a more consistent performance with South Carolina's physical rushing attack on tap Saturday.
“We didn't tackle that good in the last game, so we're just trying to come out and just get ready for South Carolina,” Georgia defensive end Toby Johnson said. “Them boys, they like to run the ball a lot, so obviously we've got to tackle.”
Led by tailback Mike Davis, who might have wound up at Georgia had Todd Gurley not committed to the Bulldogs first, South Carolina pounded North Carolina for 228 rushing yards and 6 yards per carry in last week's opener. Included in Davis' 115 rushing yards was a 75-yard touchdown run that cemented the Gamecocks' 27-10 victory.
“He’s not the biggest guy, but he’s tough,” Georgia nose guard Mike Thornton said of Davis, his former teammate at Atlanta's Stephenson High School. “He’s a tough runner.”
To contend with Davis' power running and South Carolina's NFL-sized offensive line, Georgia's defensive front also must be tougher following its uneven results in Week 1.
According to ESPN Stats & Information, Clemson ran 36 times on designed runs inside the tackles for 158 yards (4.4 YPC) and a touchdown last Saturday. That number would look more impressive were it not for a 36-yard run by Rod McDowell in the fourth quarter to set up Clemson's final touchdown.
“We swarmed to the ball as a defense, especially our linebackers, but for the most part we missed a lot of big tackles,” Johnson said. “That goes with me, I missed a big sack. So we've just got to wrap up and keep our head up and keep your feet.”
Considering that it was the first college game for a couple of Georgia linemen and the first heavy dose of playing time for a couple more, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he actually came away feeling encouraged after watching film of the group's debut effort.
“I thought there was some good things. At times they were stout and did the things we had to do. We’re so young, we’ve got to continue to work on our techniques and our fundamentals to be consistent in our play,” Grantham said. “I walked away thinking that if we can build on this, we’ll be fine. And really I walked away as that for the whole unit from that standpoint after watching the tape.”
The Bulldogs practiced in full pads Tuesday and Wednesday in an effort to work more on shedding blocks and tackling. They also shuffled their depth chart, placing Garrison Smith as the starting nose guard and Sterling Bailey and Josh Dawson as the starting ends, although Grantham insisted that making a fuss over players' positional labels is “so overrated” in his scheme that shifts between a traditional 3-4 base defense and a nickel look that deploys four players along the line.
Nonetheless, Smith played in the interior of the line for much of the Clemson game and felt he performed well, even if his 299-pound frame is considerably smaller than Georgia's 2012 nose men, John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers.
“I ain’t the size of a double-wide trailer like John Jenkins and Kwame. I’m like a dually [truck] and they’re like an 18-wheeler ... a big Mack truck, Freightliners,” Smith said. “It’s a big difference between our sizes, but I just do it the best I can.”
It should help that new line coach Chris Wilson seems prepared to follow through on his plan to use more players up front. Thornton said the Clemson game was “was the most we’ve ever rotated since I’ve been here.”
And it made a difference in the players' energy levels, as Clemson's offensive play count built and the game reached its latter stages.
“It’s a noticeable difference when you know you’ve got somebody that can come in and play a couple snaps for you, and you don’t have to worry about getting so winded and getting so tired,” Smith said. “You can get a couple plays off and be able to go back in and be able to keep playing hard.”
Whoever is in the game along Georgia's line will have one main challenge come Saturday. South Carolina arrives each week planning to dominate the line of scrimmage, and the Bulldogs must play a tougher, more consistent brand of defense if they are to end a three-game losing streak against the Gamecocks.
“Something that’s going to pop up on the film whenever you look at it and just see how big and physical they are,” Dawson said. “You’ve just got to match them.”