PREVIEW: Banged up UGA, Florida meet in rivalry game

Georgia linebackers Jordan Jenkins (59) and Amarlo Herrera (52) make a tackle against Missouri earlier this season. The Bulldogs’ defense should get a good test today from Florida. (Reuters)

Georgia linebackers Jordan Jenkins (59) and Amarlo Herrera (52) make a tackle against Missouri earlier this season. The Bulldogs’ defense should get a good test today from Florida. (Reuters)

ATHENS — The Georgia defense might as well consider today its reckoning. This is its major test. And not because it’s facing one of the best offenses it will see.

No, it’s because it’s facing one of the worst.

Florida’s offense is banged up and struggling. It has lost its top quarterback, tailback and receiver and just this week lost its left tackle. Head coach Will Muschamp had to give a vote of confidence to offensive coordinator Brent Pease, who has guided a unit ranked last in the SEC and 109th in the nation in total yards.

“This is a game — I try to take it every week, but we need to show up this week,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “And I feel like we played all right the Vanderbilt game.

But it’s the latter half of the season. We need to make a stand for ourselves in these last couple games.”

Indeed, Georgia’s defense did play relatively well against Vanderbilt, but the Bulldogs still lost, so that was overshadowed. Still, if Georgia’s young defense can continue the upward trend line against Florida, there’s a good chance it will lead to a win.

It also helps that the defense will be close to full health, with starting free safety Tray Matthews due to play for the first time since the LSU game. Safety-linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons is also set to play, after injuring his foot against Vanderbilt. The team also gets a full game from Ray Drew, the leader in sacks, who was ejected in the second quarter at Vanderbilt for a questionable targeting penalty.

So there’s plenty of optimism around the defense.

“Everyone’s still positive around here, because we’ve got a bright future,” junior linebacker Amarlo Herrera said.

But the defense can’t wait until 2014 to look good.

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has been under fire from critics and fans, as his unit has under-performed expectations. The Bulldogs weren’t supposed to be great on defense, returning only four full-time starters. But the results have been worse than expected: last in the SEC in scoring defense and ninth in yards allowed.

Georgia has been utilizing a lot of young players, and there has been on-field evidence that inexperience was a problem. Players pointing in confusion before snaps and blown coverages.

Former Georgia defensive backs now in the NFL have relayed that Grantham’s playbook actually was more complicated than what they are seeing in the pros. That’s what Harvey-Clemons told Dawgs247.com prior to the Vanderbilt game.

But Grantham and head coach Mark Richt pushed back on that idea this week.

Grantham said his former players were saying that coming off of rookie NFL camps, which is a condensed playbook, and were comparing it to how much of the Georgia playbook they had learned by the time they were seniors and juniors.

“I pretty much know what those guys up there are running,” said Grantham, who spent 11 years as an NFL defensive assistant before coming to Georgia for the 2010 season.

Richt said on his radio show this week that while his team’s defensive playbook might be thick, the young players were getting a simplified version.

“If you take the whole book, it can get complicated. But we’re not throwing the whole book at them right now,” Richt said. “It’s about as simple as it can get right now.”

Grantham echoed that.

“Trust me, we’re just scratching the surface of what we can input,” Grantham said.

Georgia’s defense was under fire entering last year’s Florida game, too. A veteran-laden unit, it had also under-performed expectations, and then-senior safety Shawn Williams issued a verbal lashing of his defense. It appeared to spark the defense, and Georgia beat Florida to get back in the national title picture.

This year, any verbal lashing is not being played out for public consumption.

“I’ve done things to let guys know some things they’re doing are unacceptable. But I’m never one to do it publicly,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “Just because I care about my teammates and I don’t want anyone to get singled out or anything like that. But just know that behind the scenes there are a lot of things going on that are handled different ways to make sure that guys know that we have to do better in order to win.”

Grantham also remained publicly upbeat.

“We didn’t win (at Vanderbilt), so we’ve gotta move on and learn from it,” he said. “But there were some strides made, and I thought some guys did some good things. Hopefully we can build on that and continue to improve.”