Herald Guest Columnist Loran Smith
ATHENS — Todd Grantham’s football routine is akin to that of a graduate student cramming for an exam. Start early in the day, keep at it past midnight. Take your copious notes to the classroom, and while you are waiting to go inside, cram a little longer, review one final time before taking the daunting exam, the reality of the challenge, impactful and foreboding as you advance your wits into the unknown.
It all begins preseason, intensifying by the day until the hour of that first kickoff. Grantham’s cliff notes and reference materials are expansive and detailed. They are based on hours of constant tape review. His objective is to know more about Tajh Boyd than the Clemson quarterback knows about himself. In football, you must graphically and intellectually know your opponent and his habits. How he thinks, how he reacts and what his tendencies are. At the same time, a defensive coordinator must know his own personnel: What are the assets, advantages, the makeup and the motivation? Who can make plays? Who stands up under pressure? Liabilities and shortfalls? Who offers the best matchups for the forthcoming opponent?
It’s 2nd down and long yardage and Clemson is inside your 40 yard line. What do the Tigers do more often than not in this situation? Pass off the bootleg? Run some sort of option? What running play do they favor in these situations? Grantham will have those statistics at hand when Georgia lines up on Frank Howard Field the last Saturday night in August . He will be ready.
Just like the graduate student, memorizing and reviewing at the last minute, Grantham studies his play sheets and his notes on the bus going to the stadium. He huddles with his assistants pre-game and studies some more. You may find him outside the locker room immersed in the underpinnings of the stadium in intense review of his scouting materials, making sure that he has everything firm in his mind, organized and reviewed and on the tip of his tongue when he calls plays and yells shout-outs to his players. At that point, all that is needed is execution. Get the matchups, get the right call, and the defense has a percentage chance to prevail. Big plays are always nice but it is the percentage plays which stand the test of time. Consistency on 1st and 3rd downs is what all coordinators want.
The Georgia defense is never not prepared. This doesn’t guarantee victory. The last season, 2012, there were playmakers and headliners. However, there were suspensions and a telling lack of depth. When you work with 29 bodies on defense (normally have a complement of 40 to 42), then the long season takes it toll. When Abry Jones went down late, this meant that in the SEC championship, Georgia only had five linemen to roll in and out of the game, when you normally and ideally have eight. If Jones had been at playable strength, you would assume he would have been available for at least 30 snaps, giving much needed rest to the big guys—John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. That might have been the difference. One third down stop in a crucial drive, perhaps. Alabama simply wore the Bulldog defense down late in the game. Even so, the Bulldogs had a chance to win and may well have won if receivers Michael Bennett or Marlon Brown had been in the lineup at the goal line with time running out.
Last year’s defense created 30 turnovers—there were 62 in the last two years. Very impressive. In 2012, Georgia gave up an average of 18.0 points per game, ranking the Bulldogs in the top four in the SEC. “That is our standard, that is what we expect,” Grantham points out.
This year, Grantham is working with 38 scholarship players. There is talent with which to work. He is the first to make note of that. There will be playmakers, maybe not like Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree, but there won’t be a drought when it comes to big plays. What he doesn’t have, as everybody including Tajh Boyd knows, is experience. Grantham’s defense, for the most part, is green as a gourd as they say in rural Georgia which is pretty green. Grantham likes his troops and you can easily see that it is inspiring for him to have an opportunity to teach his young charges the nuances of his 3-4 defense.
Sixteen new faces. Some have never seen game action. Never played under the bright lights on the road with national television recording and documenting their every move. “We have a comparable talent level (to last year’s team),” Grantham says. “These guys are younger, but they can play.”
Football, Grantham points out, is a game of one-on-one matchups. The Bulldogs have players who can make plays. “It is our job to put them in position to where they can make plays,” Grantham explains. Then, putting pressure on himself and his defensive staff,” he said, “That’s our job.”