How Georgia football built a near-perfect defense under Kirby Smart

ATHENS, Ga. -- As Arkansas offensive coordinator Kendal Briles pored over tape of Georgia's defense last month leading up to their game, he couldn't help but mutter to himself.

"It's almost unfair," Briles recalled saying recently.

He's not the only one tasked with trying to move the ball against a Georgia defense that's as suffocating as it is swarming who has expressed those thoughts.

"They're as good as I've seen," South Carolina coach Shane Beamer said. "They have size. They have length. They have physicality. They're all athletic, but then they have so much depth. A lot of the teams you play have a great starting group, and then after that, there's a little bit of a drop-off, but not with those guys.

"They just keep coming and keep coming and keep coming."

And as Georgia continues to chew up and spit out foes defensively, most recently in a 34-7 dismantling of Florida on Saturday, the reality is that Bulldogs coach Kirby Smart has seen this coming. He has had a very detailed plan to construct a defense that is putting up generational numbers in an era of college football defined by spread and up-tempo offenses that typically get all the attention.

The No. 1 Dawgs (8-0) have played 32 quarters of football this season and given up just five touchdowns on defense, only one of those coming when the outcome was still in doubt.

"There's no such thing as perfect, but that's our standard -- perfection," said junior linebacker Nakobe Dean, one of three Georgia defenders ranked by ESPN's Todd McShay among the top 30 prospects for the 2022 NFL draft.

"It's definitely a no-ego defense. No egos are allowed. You play your role and do your job and do it at a high level, and if you don't, there's somebody else right behind you that can. That's how it's going to be on this defense."

In other words, the star of this Georgia defense is the defense, one that could produce as many as five or six picks in the front seven alone in the 2022 NFL draft, one scout told Smart a few weeks ago.

"That's where it starts, where you build any defense, in the D-line and across the front," Smart told ESPN. "And you have to be committed to playing and developing a lot of those guys, because with the number of snaps and pace of play now with everybody going fast, you've got to keep guys fresh."

The Dawgs are rotating four or five players for the two inside spots on the defensive line and another four or five players for two spots at the outside linebacker and end positions, according to Smart.

"We're probably averaging playing nine to 10 players for four spots," Smart said. "But you've got to. When you're rushing the passer, it exhausts you. That's where the depth comes in. Now, our No. 7, 8 and 9 guys aren't nearly as good as 1, 2 and 3. But we're still not afraid to play them two-thirds starters and one-third the others."

Right in the middle of it all is mammoth nose tackle Jordan Davis, who might as well be a red-and-black stop sign for anybody who dares to run the ball between the tackles. The 6-foot-6 Davis was tipping the scales right around 360 pounds for the Arkansas game on Oct. 2, but is now closer to 350, Smart said.

"I've never had one like him," Smart said. "Even Terrence Cody [at Alabama] was different. Cody had a sloppier body, but Jordan doesn't have a lot of body fat. He's 6-6, and we tell him that if he's in the 340s, he's dangerous."

And yet, Davis watches from the sideline on a lot of third downs and obvious passing downs. In fact, Briles is adamant that 6-foot-3, 310-pound true sophomore Jalen Carter is even better.

"I know how unbelievable Jordan Davis is, but 88 [Carter] is a freak," Briles said. "That guy ... wow!"

Davis, echoing Dean's sentiments about it being a no-ego defense, said it doesn't matter who plays. "You're going to get the same Georgia defense," he said.

Eighteen different players this season have recorded at least one tackle for loss. And the Dawgs' defensive linemen are versatile enough to drop into coverage and tip passes that lead to interceptions, as 6-foot-5, 275-pound Travon Walker did against Florida.

"They all look the same, and I don't know how many times I could say that about the defenses I've competed against or seen," Beamer said.

What's not the same about this defense, according to Smart, is the way Georgia is playing more zone and not getting caught up in trying to match up all the time. The defensive staff made a conscious effort to simplify things this offseason.

They call it "Blackboard," and the concept doesn't change regardless of how much offenses shift, motion or line up in different formations. Smart credits his defensive staff for tweaking the scheme to help avoid some of the confusion that hurt Georgia a year ago.

"We still have the hard calls, but we added easy calls and we've been in the easy calls more than the hard calls," Smart said. "We didn't throw things out. We're just not doing them as often."

So whereas Smart's defense, even going back to his days with Nick Saban at Alabama, was once built around checks and matchups based on where a receiver, tight end or running back might line up, it's now based on having the athleticism to match up without having to move around on defense.

"We might not get the best matchup because a linebacker might be where a receiver is, but when you play zone and you bring pressure, it gives you a way to get a negative play without giving up big plays," Smart said.

And that starts with speed, especially at linebacker.

"For us, it's really about a more athletic linebacker that has the toughness to tackle backs," Smart said. "You gotta be 220 pounds, but you better be able to run.

"If you can't run, you're done."

The 6-foot, 225-pound Dean, who calls the signals from his inside linebacker spot, acknowledges that every team in the SEC can run.

"We know that. We just plan on doing it better than they do," said Dean, who showcased his speed on a 50-yard interception return for a touchdown against Florida.

Dean is small compared to the Dawgs' weakside linebacker, 6-3, 235-pound junior Nolan Smith, who forced a fumble to set up Georgia's first touchdown against Florida and then intercepted a pass right before halftime to set up the Dawgs' second touchdown.

"Because they're so good inside, you want to try to get the ball on the perimeter, but their space guys are great in space," Briles said. "That's what makes it so hard. They tackle so well in space. They get off blocks in space. They run so well to the football, and they get there angry. When they hit you, your players remember how it feels when you get hit by Georgia."

This is Smith's third year in the program, and the other starting outside linebacker, 6-foot-5, 230-pound Adam Anderson, who leads the team with five sacks, is in his fourth year.

"That outside backer group has been here for a while," said Smart, noting that Brenton Cox (Florida) and Jermaine Johnson (Florida State) were also a part of that unit before transferring. "There was a time when that room was scary, but the two that stayed are the two that are playing the best."

It's worth noting Cox is second on Florida's team in tackles for loss and Johnson leads the ACC in sacks per game.

"We've got a lot of guys who know they could probably be starting somewhere else, possibly even starting on this team, and there are guys who left," Dean said. "But the guys here know they're going to get rolled in on this defense and that there's going to be enough for all of us."

It's not just the linebackers, though. A big part of Smart's defensive design was bringing in defensive backs who were sure tacklers and could make plays in space.

Safeties Lewis Cine and Latavious Brini are both taller than 6 feet and weigh more than 200 pounds. Even the Dawgs' best cornerback, Clemson transfer Derion Kendrick, is 6-foot and 190 pounds.

"In today's game, you can have the two best corners in the world, and people throw the ball well enough and they get you in space that your corners better be able to tackle," Smart said. "They better be able to do it all. Offenses are going to force you to tackle well on the back end."

That has been one of the hallmarks of this Georgia defense. The Dawgs simply don't give up big plays. They lead the country having allowed only 15 plays from scrimmage of 20 yards or longer.

Even more amazing, they've had 245 rushing plays attempted against them, and only one of those was for 20 yards or longer, a 23-yard rush with 15 seconds remaining in a 56-7 win over UAB in Week 2.

Smart acknowledges that Georgia isn't elite in the secondary, as the Dawgs lost four defensive backs from a year ago that are now playing in the NFL, including cornerback Eric Stokes in the first round and Tyson Campbell in the second round.

"We're not as good back there, but we're hiding it better," Smart said. "What you've got to remember is that the influence of offense at our level has made it difficult for defenses to keep up. We're fortunate that we've had a ball-control offense to play behind on defense, but we've also got a front seven that may not happen again for a while in college football."

The Dawgs were able to take advantage of the transfer portal to shore up their secondary with the addition of Kendrick, a senior who earned All-ACC honors in both 2019 and 2020 at Clemson. He was dismissed from Clemson's team a few months after the conclusion of the 2020 season and has stepped in as Georgia's man coverage specialist.

"To add a plug-and-play guy like DK at corner was huge for us because we were short in the secondary," Smart said. "Without him, we would be in a little bit of trouble right now."

Beamer was an assistant coach at Georgia in Smart's first two seasons there in 2016 and 2017. The Dawgs ranked sixth nationally in both scoring and total defense in 2017, but Beamer said there are a couple of factors that set this defense apart.

"It's the depth up front as well as the size and length in the secondary," Beamer said. "They have bigger defensive backs with long arms who are physical and can run and tackle. I just don't see anybody scoring that much against these guys going forward."

The caliber of players Smart has recruited on defense, not to mention the Dawgs' recruiting reach, speaks for itself. In the 2018, '19 and '20 recruiting classes, Georgia signed 13 ESPN four-star prospects from seven different states who are in the defensive rotation right now, which doesn't count players like Azeez Ojulari and Campbell, who have moved on to the NFL.

Even those players who came in with little fanfare are contributing. Senior safety Dan Jackson didn't have a scholarship when he arrived in Athens. He filled in for Christopher Smith when he was injured in the Auburn game and led the team in tackles. He started the following week against Kentucky and was the team's second-leading tackler.

"It's always about players and the way those players fit," Dean said. "But there was a non-schematic piece added with the way the coaches put this defense together. We spent a lot of time this offseason figuring out each other's whys and learning a lot about each other. We became more connected. There's a trust among us, and we know whoever they put out there, we can count on them to get the job done."

Smart has seen the game evolve greatly in the past decade. He was on the field in 2011 as Alabama's defensive coordinator when LSU beat Alabama 9-6 in overtime. There were 28 defensive players in that game -- 14 on each side -- who would go on to be drafted, including 10 first-rounders.

But it was much more of a possession game back then, and tempo and run-pass options weren't ingrained in offenses the way they are now.

"Both of those offenses at the time were bully offenses, and what a good defense is made up of now is not what a good defense was made up of then," Smart said. "You have the same situational principles -- short-yardage, goal-line and all those things. But the makeup is so different. You have to be able to give people negative plays to get them behind the sticks. You have to be more disruptive whereas back then I felt like you could out-physical people."

And while the makeup of what constitutes a good defense might be different, Smart isn't willing to budge on what Georgia's barometers are for playing winning defense.

"We didn't change our goals, and we're not going to," he said.

Among those goals:

  • Holding teams to 13 or fewer points

  • Holding teams to 3.3 yards per rush

  • Holding teams to 5.5 yards per pass

  • Winning 70 percent or better on third down

"We know what we're looking for in a player, at every position," Smart said. "The most important thing, though, is having good players -- period. Don't let anybody kid you that it's about scheme or anything else, because with offenses being able to run it, pull it or throw it all on the same play now, you better have players who can defend all areas of the grass.

"We're good at what we do, number one, because we have good players. But number two, what we choose to rep in practice is not the easy stuff. We do the hardest thing a team does in our practices, expose them to everything we possibly can."

For most of this season, it has almost looked too easy for the Dawgs in games. And to say they take it personally when anybody sets foot in their end zone -- regardless of the score or how much time is remaining -- is putting it mildly.

In Georgia's 30-13 win over Kentucky on Oct. 16, the Wildcats scored their second touchdown with four seconds left, and the Dawgs blocked the extra point to meet their goal of 13 points. Several of Georgia's starters were on the field for that final drive.

"Those kids didn't want them to score over 13, and never more have I seen that than in that sequence of four plays at the goal line where they said, 'I don't give a s--- what the score is. They're not getting in,'" Smart recalled. "They fought them, and they did get in, but they blocked the kick and didn't let them get 14."

Florida's only touchdown came in the final three minutes with Georgia leading 27-0. But you would have thought the game was tied based on the emotions on the Dawgs' sideline as the Gators were driving. Following a mix-up in coverage, Smart jerked redshirt freshman cornerback Kelee Ringo's jersey as he came to the sideline and barked to get somebody else in the game.

"It's playing to the standard no matter who's in the game, the 2s, the 3s. It doesn't matter," Dean said. "It's a no-name opponent because we're playing to the standard."

Briles' Arkansas offense rushed for a combined 530 yards in wins over Texas and Texas A&M and then 350 yards in a 52-51 loss to Ole Miss, but the Hogs managed just 75 yards on the ground in a 37-0 loss to Georgia.

"They're doing this to offenses that are used to scoring," Briles said. "That's a tough pill to swallow because there's nothing you can call that you know is going to work."

As Georgia continues to steamroll its way through the remainder of the regular season and what the Dawgs hope will be their first College Football Playoff appearance since 2017, invariably there will be comparisons between this defense and some of college football's best in recent decades.

Since 2000, Georgia's 53 points allowed is the fewest through eight games. Alabama's 2011 defense allowed 55 through eight games and USC's 2008 defense allowed 57 through eight games.

Dean, a mechanical engineering major, isn't interested in making any comparisons. Not yet, anyway.

"When it's over, that's when we want to compare ourselves to the overall great defenses that have played football," Dean said. "That's our mindset, the same mindset we've had since summer workouts, since our first practice, since our first game.

"None of those comparisons mean anything right now."