Todd Grantham said he has not communicated with his former co-workers at Georgia in the eight days since learning that his new team, Louisville, will face the Bulldogs in the Dec. 30 Belk Bowl.
On a Monday conversation with reporters, the first-year Louisville defensive coordinator downplayed any competitive advantage he might have gleaned from practicing against most of the Bulldogs’ players over the previous four seasons as a Mark Richt assistant.
“It still gets down to getting off blocks, tackling people, winning one-on-one matchups on both sides of the ball, so I don’t think that’ll play as big a factor as you guys will make it out to be,” Grantham said. “I think it gets down to just playing football. Obviously they’re a talented team. They’re one of the best offenses in the country, so we know we’ve got to play well and be ready for a big challenge.”
A veteran assistant like Grantham has plenty of experience in situations like this, coaching against friends, former co-workers or ex-players several times each season. While he understands the intrigue surrounding his coaching against a program where he was on staff less than a year ago, Grantham said it doesn’t add extra juice to the bowl game from his perspective.
“I’ve got a lot of respect for the people there -- both the coaches and the players,” Grantham said. “This isn’t the first time that a coach has faced a team that he was coaching the year before. It’s part of the business. We’ve had a great season. We went 9-3 and it’s a chance for us to send our seniors out the right way because they really did believe in our system when we came here.”
That they did. Former Louisville coach Charlie Strong left a strong defensive identity behind when he left for Texas after last season, and the Cardinals have thrived in the first season under Grantham’s leadership. Despite losing safety Calvin Pryor and defensive end Marcus Smith to the first round of the NFL draft, Louisville still ranks sixth nationally in total defense, allowing 293.3 yards per game.
Further, the Cardinals lead the nation in interceptions (25), rank fourth in third-down defense (28.2 percent) and are tied for seventh in sacks (3.25 per game). They’re in the top 20 in turnovers gained (T12, 28), scoring defense (18th, 20.5 points per game) and red zone defense (T19, 27 opponent scores in 36 red zone possessions).
Not bad for a first season in a new conference -- and Grantham said it’s only the tip of the iceberg.
“Our main focus and vision is to win the ACC and compete for a national title, and after one year here and the recruiting class we’re having, I’m more convinced than ever that we can reach that goal,” Grantham said.
That sounds very much like the sales pitch that Grantham used to make while wearing Georgia’s red and black. Replace ACC with SEC and insert Florida instead of Florida State as the opponent he has circled as the roadblock standing between his team and the championships it wants to win.
Grantham’s tenure at Georgia ended with a bit of a flop -- the young Bulldogs surrendered 29 points and 375.5 yards per game last season -- as fans and media questioned his job security throughout the 2013 season.
“We obviously had a really young team last year and we kind of faced some veteran offenses, some veteran quarterbacks, and because of that, we had to take some shots with those guys, but I think they got better for it,” Grantham recalled. “They were able to mature and I think that’s one of the reasons they’re able to have some success right now.”
Two of those young players, cornerback Shaq Wiggins and safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, followed Grantham to Louisville and sat out this season as transfers. Grantham credited the former Bulldogs for their work on the scout team and said he expects them to compete for starting jobs in 2015.
As for Georgia, Grantham said he remains proud of what the program accomplished in his four seasons there -- a time where the Bulldogs won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012 and dominated rivals Florida, Georgia Tech, Auburn and Tennessee with an 11-1 record in his final three seasons.
That’s what Grantham said he remembers about his Georgia tenure, not the last season where he came under fire.
“I’ve always known I was a good coach in what I was doing,” Grantham said. “I think if you go back and look at the changes we were able to establish and make at the University of Georgia in my time there, we were able to win games, we were able to put, really, Georgia back on the map from being relevant.”