The hyperbole surrounding the University of Georgia football team is beginning to accumulate. The Bulldogs haven’t given up a first-half offensive touchdown all season, and Georgia’s first-string defense has allowed one touchdown through six games.
Georgia’s evolved defensive system — which features a heavy dose of innovative simulated pressures — is considered by one veteran coach a defensive version of the run-pass option. Heck, even Georgia’s punter gets opposing coaches and NFL scouts waxing poetic about his hang time.
The Bulldogs have so much talent that it’s a conservative estimate that 17 players could end up being picked in the NFL draft — according to scouts and experts — which would smash the current record of 14 held by LSU (2020) and Ohio State (2004) in the seven-round era.
“That’s a conservative estimate to say they are draftable,” Senior Bowl executive Jim Nagy said.
So is Georgia — a +130 national title favorite at BetMGM — a team of dominance and destiny? Is coach Kirby Smart ready to puncture the Alabama dynasty and deliver UGA its first national title since 1980? There’s certainly plenty of folks gushing.
“I’d be shocked if Alabama or anyone beats them,” said a veteran college assistant. “If I was a betting man, I’d put all my money on UGA. They’re that good.”
Longtime college defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot asks if this Georgia defense can emerge as “the equivalent to LSU’s offense two years ago?” He adds: “Georgia’s front seven may be the most talented front seven in the history of college football.”
Nagy, who worked for nearly two decades as an NFL scout, is extremely high on UGA’s defense: “It’s as good as I’ve seen in the last 10 to 15 years in college football. That front seven is hell on wheels.”
True to the chaotic nature of this season, Georgia’s outlandish dominance comes with an undercurrent of uncertainty. UGA’s quarterback position is unsettled, its wide receiver position is limited and the offensive line as a whole is greater than its solid parts.
Can UGA’s superhuman defense, which leads the nation by allowing 5.5 points per game, compensate for a solid but unspectacular offense? With No. 1 Georgia’s showcase game against No. 11 Kentucky this weekend, we asked a dozen opposing coaches, scouts and experts what makes the Bulldogs both special and vulnerable.
Will Smart figure out a way to win Georgia a national title in the same way his mentor, Nick Saban, did circa 2009, 2011 and 2012?
How talented is the Bulldogs' defense?
Few topics veer hard to cliché more than depth. But Georgia’s depth is different.
“It’s almost like watching a hockey team,” Nagy said of Georgia’s defense. “You see them come on the field in shifts. Other than the two safeties, everyone comes on and off the field.”
Georgia’s best defensive prospect, 6-foot-6, 340-pound Jordan Davis, plays around only 35 snaps a game, according to an NFL scout. Davis could well end up a top-10 pick, but there’s a sentiment in the scouting community that sophomore Jalen Carter, who is technically a reserve, is actually better. Carter, who is 6-foot-3, 310 pounds, has an insane 17 quarterback hurries in six games, a mind-boggling total for an interior lineman. Georgia’s leading tackler is reserve linebacker Channing Tindall with 29.
Carter isn’t yet draft-eligible. After speaking to Nagy and a few scouts who’ve studied Georgia, I compiled a list of its 10 draft-eligible players who could come out and would likely get drafted. This list is cut off with an acknowledgement that some other reserves have NFL traits and could get a shot. “You know what’s funny is that we’re still writing other guys,” said an NFL scout. “We’re writing up backups with measurables.”
Davis, who made a wise decision to return for his senior year, and senior edge rusher Adam Anderson (4.5 TFLs) are the likely first-round picks. That’s not an outlandish amount. What separates UGA are the other eight players who project as potential picks: DE Travon Walker, DT Devonte Wyatt, LB Nakobe Dean, LB Quay Walker, LB Nolan Smith, LB Tindall, S Lewis Cine and CB Derion Kendrick.
Not all of those players are guaranteed to leave or even expected to. Some like Tindall or Smith could return, like Davis did, to further solidify their stock. Other senior defenders on the Georgia roster who could get NFL looks based off traits and measurables include reserve linebacker Robert Beal Jr., injured corner Ameer Speed, heady safety Christopher Smith (he scored the only TD against Clemson) and defensive back Latavious Brini.
In total, how good is this group? “They’re as good as I’ve seen in a while,” said a veteran coach. “They have depth at every position. You may have a crease or a play that looks good initially but because of their size and their physicality and the speed, it closes quickly.”
How good is Georgia's offense?
Here’s the way one veteran NFL executive summed up how UGA is going to play out the season.
“They’re not going to take risks throwing the ball,” the executive said. “They’re not going to lose the game on offense. That’s why they’re going to be so hard to beat.”
As the weeks pass, the chances of former walk-on Stetson Bennett becoming the full-time Georgia starter continue to increase. J.T. Daniels won that job last season after transferring from USC and fighting through injury. But Bennett has started three games so far in 2021 as Daniels struggles with injuries — an oblique injury and a lat muscle issue — that have sidelined him the past two weeks. With every start, Bennett is further making the case he should keep playing.
The prevailing narrative about Georgia’s offense this year has been what’s missing: Daniels to injury, star receiver George Pickens to injury, tight end Arik Gilbert appears to be on indefinite leave and a flurry of other setbacks at receiver.
That’s led Georgia to build an offense that’s No. 48 overall and No. 11 in scoring offense (39.8 ppg). Some of that disparity can be attributed to the short fields and opportunism, as Georgia has forced 10 turnovers.
There are also good players. Daniels, if he goes to the NFL, would likely be drafted amid a historically weak quarterback crop. Although he could help himself significantly by staying healthy, playing consistently and coming back and becoming the 2.0 version of Pittsburgh’s Kenny Pickett, who now has scouts buzzing.
Daniels is one of six players who projects as an NFL pick on offense. Pickens, the star receiver who hasn’t played this year, is expected to enter the draft and may be UGA’s most talented offensive player. None of the other projected picks for the upcoming draft — RB Zamir White, RB James Cook, LT Jamaree Salyer and LG Justin Shaffer — is likely to go on the first two days.
Bennett’s limitations were exposed as last season went on, and he struggled in losses to Alabama and Florida. But multiple opposing defensive coaches noted that offensive coordinator Todd Monken has utilized unpredictable plays out of familiar formations to keep teams off-balance. “They do so many things really well,” said one assistant, “you’re playing left-handed against them.”
Bennett has completed nearly 69.4% of his passes, thrown eight touchdowns and just two interceptions. With Georgia’s defense so dominant, he has been asked to do less.
Why is the defense so tough?
While the talent on Georgia’s defense has been obvious, the nuance of coordinator Dan Lanning’s scheme hasn’t received nearly the attention it deserves.
Lanning is in his third year as Georgia’s defensive coordinator and in his fourth year at the school. UGA has long run the base defense that Kriby Smart learned from Nick Saban — a 3-4 look against bigger personnel and a 4-3/4-2 nickel look against 11 or 10 personnel.
Lanning has put his unique twist on the Saban System by adding simulated pressures. Simply put, a simulated pressure — or simis, as they are known — is a defensive pressure that brings a non-traditional rusher like a linebacker but still brings only four total rushers, as a defensive end, for example, drops into that linebacker’s space to mitigate the blitzing risk. “It’s a blitz that the defense runs that doesn’t have the weaknesses of a blitz for an offense to attack,” said Eliot, the former defensive coordinator at Kentucky, Colorado and Kansas.
Opposing coaches say that Lanning would flash simulated pressures once or twice a game in 2019. That became about 20 percent of UGA’s defensive looks in 2020 and it’s nearly half of what UGA runs this season. It has evolved from a wrinkle to a lifestyle.
And it’s working, as UGA has 22 sacks by 12 different players. UGA is No. 6 nationally and first in the SEC in sacks, compared to No. 100 nationally and last in the SEC in 2018, when Lanning coached Georgia’s linebackers but had yet to become coordinator.
A simulated pressure puts an offense in conflict, similar to how an RPO puts a defense in conflict. The offense has to react as if it’s picking up a blitz — like a back helping — but it doesn’t have the space or numbers to exploit it down the field because of the extra body dropped back. Simulated pressures aren’t new in college, as Baylor’s Dave Aranda helped usher them into the college game, and Eliot helped install the system at Kentucky, which it still runs today. Vic Fangio and Brandon Staley are among the NFL coaches who frequently utilize them.
The relative novelty of the system in college combined with the rare talent level has helped put UGA’s defense in a new paradigm. “That’s why they’re better than Alabama, they’ve grown,” said Eliot, who spoke extensively on Georgia’s simulated pressures on the "Coach & Coordinator Podcast."
“They’ve grown and combined two really good systems.”
I’m joined by @CoachEliot for our weekly Defensive Series. We discuss:
-Evolution of Alabama & Georgia Defenses
-Stems-how to get them called & who should do it
-Creepers & what the O should do
— Coach Keith Grabowski 🏈Coach&Coordinator Podcast (@CoachKGrabowski) October 6, 2021
Georgia essentially debuted an entirely new secondary this year, and it still is a relatively pedestrian group compared to the historic standards of the front seven. Only safety Lewis Cine returned after playing quality minutes, and the secondary is thin enough that walk-on redshirt sophomore Dan Jackson is playing for the injured Christopher Smith.
So Georgia refined a scheme that flummoxes the quarterback without compromising the back end, protecting the defense’s most vulnerable spot by tallying 109 quarterback hurries through six games, including seven players with six or more hurries.
In total, UGA’s willingness to evolve and grow has allowed a tidal wave of talent to be used in an innovative way to help form the identity of this team.
Punt to the moon
Georgia lost its special teams coordinator, Scott Cochran, prior to the season because he opted to take time away for health reasons. Georgia’s special teams are still an unflinching and opportunistic crew. Seeing White, a running back, recover a blocked punt for a touchdown against Arkansas sums up UGA’s key contributors still valuing special teams reps.
“The head coach has a certain persona, and I felt like watching their special teams that oozed out of them,” said one opposing assistant. “That’s impressive, as they played on special teams with a toughness and effort and attention to detail. The special teams reflected the culture of the program.”
We counted 16 players earlier with a strong chance to get drafted — 10 on defense and six on offense. Well, the 17th player is UGA’s punter and kickoff specialist — senior Jake Camarda.
One opposing assistant timed Camarda’s hang times in warmups consistently at 5 seconds. “It reminded me when a battle ship launches a 14-inch shell,” said an opposing coach. “It goes into the sky, and by the time it comes down it goes straight into the ground.”
Nine of Camarda’s 18 punts have ended up inside the 20-yard line. He has punted six times for more than 50 yards. Camarda’s canon also translates to kickoffs. “Holy cow,” said an NFL scout. “He kicked one 10 rows into the student section recently.”
Can Georgia do it?
So we’ve gushed about Georgia’s defense and pointed out the flaws in Georgia’s offense. Can UGA turn back the clock on college football and win the 2021 title like it’s 2011?
Not since Jake Coker in 2015 has a game manager won a national title in college football. Since then, a high-end group of future first-round NFL draft picks — Deshaun Watson, Tua Tagovailoa (off the bench, sorry UGA fans), Trevor Lawrence, Joe Burrow and Mac Jones — has won titles. Along the way, the need to stretch the field vertically, attack defenses and play with dynamism became prerequisites to win the title.
This Georgia team would have to change the archetype of recent title winners. They’re certainly the favorite, especially among college coaches we spoke to. And especially with the field so flawed around them. But is the team balanced enough?
“I think Bama’s team as a whole is probably better,” said an NFL scout. “UGA probably has more elite talent on their defense. But Bama has a better wide receiver and better running back and quarterback and has a chance to be better. They are pretty well-rounded and steady in every area.”
There’s a realistic chance Georgia may face Alabama twice, as they could lose to them in the SEC title game and potentially face the Tide again a month later in the College Football Playoff title game.
If Georgia is going to topple Alabama in the SEC and beyond, it’s going to be with a blueprint that served as the foundation for Saban’s dynasty. With, of course, a new-age twist.