The news of Tray Matthews' dismissal from Georgia's football team on Tuesday is yet another reminder of how much work the Bulldogs' defense has in front of it in 2014.
Matthews was far from perfect last year, and was known more for his unspeakable gaffe with Josh Harvey-Clemons against Auburn than any real positive impact he had on the field in 2013. But he had experience and time to improve. Even if Matthews was never going to be the all-world performer he was pumped up to be before his Athens arrival, his absence certainly doesn't help in the depth department.
However, Matthews, who was also one of four Georgia players arrested and charged with theft by deception in March, is gone, leaving the Bulldogs without three starters from last year's secondary.
From an experience standpoint, it isn't an ideal situation for new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, but there's nothing he can do about it now. When I spoke to him in his office this spring, he made it clear that he understood the tall task he was undertaking by guiding this defense, and he didn't take the job for a quick fix. He said he left Florida State to build something at Georgia.
Right now, it's going to take a lot from him to even build something for fans to rally around this fall. The secondary will be overrun with youngsters and the defensive line is still waiting for a great, consistent player to emerge. Georgia should be fine at linebacker with the likes of Leonard Floyd, Ramik Wilson, Jordan Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera returning, but they can't do everything.
This spring, Pruitt's task was getting his new group to buy in to what he was selling. At the same time, he was trying to get a read on who his players were and what they brought to the table during 15 practices. That isn't a lot of time to get a lot done when you're new, or you're an embattled group that gave up a school-record 377 points last year and allowed 375.5 yards per game, the most during the Mark Richt era.
Pruitt saw good work ethic and some promise, but there's still plenty that has to improve before the season opener against Clemson on Aug. 30.
“I don’t know how it was here before. I know our coaching staff is very focused on attention to detail, playing with effort, playing with toughness," Pruitt told ESPN.com in April. "We have a long ways to go to get to where we want to be.
“We have to get guys to do it right all the time.”
Pruitt isn't going to cry about the players he has lost. He has to get a plan together before he gets to work with the guys who will actually play for him this year.
The fact of the matter is this defense doesn't have the talent that the 2011 and 2012 teams had. Outside of the linebacker group, especially Floyd and Wilson, there are a lot of unknowns, but Pruitt understands that what he can do to make this defense more competitive is to have them win the mental battle. They have to be disciplined and tough enough to make opponents earn yards.
Pruitt said his guys have to work hard over and over to challenge opponents. If you get beat, he said, make sure it's by ability, not carelessness.
It's on Pruitt to put his players in good positions this fall, but the guys who actually move around on the field have to have a little more pride about them. They have to want to get better and play tougher.
Where Pruitt hopes to get a spark is from some new faces. Looking at the secondary, there's a chance that three or four newcomers could find starting jobs in a group in which senior Damian Swann is the only cornerback who has started more than one game.
Finding players to nail down spots at the boundary corner positions will be key. Redshirt freshman Reggie Wilkerson is returning from his ACL injury and 2014 signees Malkom Parrish, Shaq Jones, and Shattle Fenteng (junior college transfer) will all get the chance to take a corner spot. True freshman Dominick Sanders also will take reps at safety.
“I’m hoping that these young guys we have coming in can help us in the secondary," Pruitt said. “I’m going to give those guys a chance right off the bat. They’re going to have to prove to me that they can’t do it.”
Georgia's defense will go through a lot of growing pains in 2014. There will be plenty of frustrating moments for Pruitt and his group, but there will still be chances for growth.
How fast that growth begins will depend on how Pruitt and his players attack the steep hill in front of them.