Todd Grantham got a glimpse of the hand he was dealt in the spring.
The first-year Georgia defensive coordinator will get a more definitive look beginning Monday when the Bulldogs open preseason practice.
The freshmen and players who were injured during the spring will be added to the mix as Georgia completes its move to the 3-4. Grantham, whose previous 11 seasons were spent coaching in the NFL, is one of three new defensive assistants on the Bulldogs’ staff.
Their challenge is pretty straightforward: to return the edge to Georgia’s once-proud defense. The Bulldogs were 10th in the SEC last season in scoring defense and have given up 34 or more points in 10 of their 26 games over the last two seasons.
I caught up with Grantham recently to get his thoughts on the upcoming season, his first in college football since 1998 when he was the assistant head coach/defensive line coach at Michigan State under Nick Saban.
Where will the hottest battles be this preseason?
Todd Grantham: The corner position will be interesting. Brandon Boykin, Vance Cuff and Branden Smith will all play, but they will be battling it out for the two starting spots. At safety, we have Bacarri Rambo starting at one, but [junior college transfer] Jakar Hamilton and Nick Williams will be a good battle at the other safety. We moved Darryl Gamble from inside linebacker to outside linebacker, and we’ll see how that turns out with Cornelius Washington. I’m also curious to see what freshmen T. J. Stripling, Dexter Morant and Brandon Burrows do at linebacker and how they fit in. On tape, I like Stripling at our will linebacker position [weakside linebacker] behind Justin Houston. We’ll see how it plays out when everybody gets here.
How much will you experiment this preseason, especially given the move to the 3-4?
TG: I come from pro football, and you’re going into the game with 21 or 22 guys on defense, and that’s it. What you learn is that you have to be flexible, and we will be. If somebody goes down, I’d rather play the next best guy instead of the next guy at that position, and there’s a difference in that. We’re going to find out which guys can play different roles.
What will be key for you up front defensively?
TG: We’ve got to develop a rotation up there, and those guys have to be relentless. DeAngelo Tyson will start out at nose, and Kwame Geathers is behind him. We also have Justin Anderson moving over from the offensive line. If those other two guys come on, it might give us a chance to move DeAngelo around and see what we can do with him at end. I just believe you have to play a lot of guys up there. You expend so much energy playing in the defensive line. If a guy feels like he has to play 60 plays, he’s going to coast. But if he knows he only has to play 35, he will give you more and knows when he gets tired that he’s going to come out and the next guy’s going in. We’ve got to find a way to develop that kind of rotation. If you don’t, when the fourth quarter comes around and it’s time to win the game, your best guys are going to be tired.
What kind of outside linebacker will Houston be in your scheme after recording 7.5 sacks last season at defensive end?
TG: I’m expecting a big year out of him and have talked to him about that. Everybody on your team isn’t the same, and he’s got to be one of those guys who rises above for us. We need to expect more out of him. You have to manufacture production from your linebackers in the 3-4, particularly your outside guys, because that’s where you generate your pass rush. I think Justin is made for the 3-4, and it’s a very good fit for him. That showed up in spring ball with some of the things he did.
Georgia was tied for next to last nationally last season with 12 forced turnovers. How do you turn that around?
TG: It starts with the quarterback. In pro football, we did a study, and the guy who fumbles the ball the most is the quarterback. He’s also the guy throwing the ball, so the more you can do to disrupt him, the more you’re going to create turnovers. You can do that a lot of ways -- disguising what you do, by bringing pressure, four-man and six-man rush, and the biggest thing is the disruption of routes. You can’t allow free access. If you disrupt them and jam them, they’re not always going to be in the spot they’re supposed to be. There’s no question that we need to create more turnovers. Again, going back to the NFL, the teams that were plus-1 in turnover margin over the last 11 years won 80 percent of their games.
Will you call the defensive plays from the booth or be on the sideline during games this season?
TG: I’ll be on the sideline. You have more time to get the calls in when you’re on the sideline. You have more time to think about what you want to do, and you also get a better feel for the players down there. I was on the sideline in the NFL and am used to it. You get used to watching the game from down there and seeing everything develop from down there.
What do you hope the Georgia fans see in this defense?
TG: What I want them to see is improvement and that we’re aggressive, fundamentally sound and relentless in our pursuit of the ball. I want them to see a defense that doesn’t give up explosive plays, a defense that plays with a swagger. I know this, that the Georgia fans have a passion for defense, the “Junkyard Dawg” defense that is so famous around here. I anticipate working toward giving them the things they have a passion for.