ATHENS, Ga. -- Todd Grantham didn't hesitate when asked whether Georgia's defensive line is the key to the Bulldogs' vast improvement this season.
"No question," the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator said. "They don't get moved. They're playing tough, they're playing aggressive, they're physical. I think Rodney (Garner, Georgia's defensive line coach) has done a great job with them."
Midway through their second season functioning in Grantham's 3-4 defense, the Bulldogs have made across-the-board progress on defense, but they realize it begins with the big men up front.
"We just have a really good line that plays together," inside linebacker Christian Robinson said. "They know their job. They're not coming out of their gaps. They're staying in their gaps and that allows linebackers to flow and not get picked off.
"I think maybe last year we were all kind of unsure about, 'Do I stay in my gap or do I go, or do I have a choice?' Now they're taking up space and blockers. It allows them to get pressure, and it allows us to do our job."
Particular credit goes to mammoth nose guards John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, who anchor the line and often occupy multiple blockers.
The Bulldogs struggled at the point of attack last year, when DeAngelo Tyson (6-foot-2, 306 pounds) was forced to play a nose position that is better suited for a larger player. Enter Jenkins (6-3, 351), who was widely viewed as one of the Bulldogs' most important newcomers when he signed out of Mississippi's Gulf Coast Community College in February.
The attention thrown Jenkins' way lit a fire under Geathers (6-6, 350), who became one of Georgia's most dominant players in the spring, winning the team's Defensive MVP award at the conclusion of spring drills.
Now they form an oversized rotation at a key position on the line, and both players have been effective -- as evidenced by opponents' consistent struggles to run the ball between the tackles. Georgia's last three opponents -- Ole Miss, Mississippi State and Tennessee -- rushed for 34, 56 and minus-20 yards, respectively.
"The good news is we have two guys who can play and two guys who know that you have to compete for that starting job on a weekly basis," Georgia coach Mark Richt said. "That's when you really have something going on."
Their emergence lessens the workload for everyone else on the defense.
Tyson was able to move to end, where he is a more natural fit, and has teamed with fellow starting end Abry Jones for 34 tackles and 17 quarterback hurries.
The linebackers don't get tangled up with blockers as easily. Even with starting inside linebackers Alec Ogletree and Robinson losing time to foot injuries, their replacements have performed well.
The defensive backs aren't forced to cover their positions quite as long, since the Bulldogs are getting better pressure on the quarterback. And that pressure has produced many of Georgia's eight interceptions, a total that ranks 13th in the nation.
"We turned it on up front, and that allowed us to get more interceptions," cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "We've got to work together back and forth, so the secondary playing well is a tribute to them playing well up front, and I think it's vice versa."
Jenkins' arrival was exactly the spark Georgia's coaches sought when they began pursuing him on the recruiting trail last year, pushing Geathers to new levels of achievement and freeing the other players on defense to wreak havoc.
The Bulldogs rank in the nation's top 20 in every significant defensive category, including sixth in total defense (260.5 yards per game) and 12th in rushing defense (85.83 ypg) -- the two categories that best measure the nose guards' impact. That represents an improvement of 68 total yards and 61 rushing yards per game over last season.
But Jenkins said he isn't paying much attention to where the Bulldogs rank statistically. His timeshare with Geathers at the center of Georgia's defensive line keeps the junior college transfer striving to prove he deserves more playing time.
"To be honest, I didn't even realize it," Jenkins said. "All we've been doing is just saying, 'OK, this is who we're playing against, and we have to play to our best potential.' When you play to your potential or try to exceed past your potential or your expectations, good things may come out of it."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.