Georgia Bulldogs head coach Mark Richt made it clear earlier this week that he has absolutely no intentions on making staff changes once the team’s 2013 season officially ends following the Bulldogs’ bowl game, telling the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that “Everybody should be back,” then explaining that the departure of any of the coaching staff would be on their own accord.
While Richt’s statement seemed to be broad and geared towards all of the coaches on the staff, most focused it towards Todd Grantham, the much maligned defensive coordinator of the Bulldogs. Now in his fourth season as defensive coordinator, Grantham’s defense was a bit of a disappointment in 2013, giving up 29.4 points per game (81st in the nation) in a season that saw Georgia lose four games and post a 5-3 record in SEC play.
Most felt that Georgia’s offense was extremely dangerous this season, but that the defense let the team down time and time again. With so much pressure on coaches in any given year, many fans felt like the Bulldogs’ play on defense was so poor that Grantham should be fired, a belief that certainly has some support. The question, however, is what is best for the upcoming Georgia Bulldogs’ teams; should Todd Grantham be relieved of his duties, or should he still be responsible for Georgia’s defense in 2014 and beyond?
It is a popular sentiment in sports that numbers never lie, and if that is the case, the numbers certainly do not necessarily support the job that Grantham has done in his tenure with the Bulldogs. In Grantham’s first season as coordinator back in 2010, the Bulldogs were middle-of-the pack in the majority of major defensive categories, allowing 26.4 points per game (71st in FBS) along with producing just 10 interceptions on the year (79th in the country). However, it would be fair to say that Georgia was transitioning from the 4-3 to the 3-4 in 2010, so it was a safe assumption that there would be times of trial-and-error.
Growth was expected and definitely warranted in 2011 coming off of the Bulldogs’ first losing season since 1996, and there certainly was a good bit of that for Georgia, as the team managed to go 10-4 and play for the SEC Championship for the first time since 2005. Partially responsible for this success was the defense, which improved in points allowed (23.1), and interceptions (14) while only giving up an average of seven more yards per game than they did the year before.
The epitome of the Georgia defense was 2012, when the Bulldogs finally got Grantham’s 3-4 style clicking thanks to the play of Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, and John Jenkins, the nose tackle that most feel will make or break a 3-4’s capabilities. With all of these outstanding players, the Bulldogs surged to one of the top defenses in the nation, ranking seventeenth in points per game with 19.6, third in yards allowed per game with a shade under 269, and fifth with twenty interceptions. The defense was far from perfect last season, but they got the job done more often than not, playing a pivotal role in giving the team a chance at playing for the National Championship.
The 2013 season was expected to be a significant step backwards due to eight starters from the defense either graduating or leaving for other pursuits, but most fans really did not prepare themselves for how bad at times this defense played. With twelve games now in the book, Georgia has made 2012’s play feel like a very distant memory thanks to Grantham’s guys giving up almost ten more points per game than last season at 29.4 and 351 yards per game. Specifically, the defense was embarrassed on a few occasions this season, including in Knoxville when a horribly timed fumble by Volunteers wide receiver Pig Howard saved Georgia’s bacon or in Auburn when “The Prayer in Jordan-Hare” on 4th and 18 helped the Tigers towards the SEC West title.
So, is Grantham to blame for this team’s struggles? I say no, not entirely for several reasons. The biggest problem with this year’s defense stems from last year’s departures; to paraphrase former Boston Celtics head coach Rick Pitino, Jarvis Jones was not walking through that door, fans. It was an understood complication to having so many outstanding players that they would exit and leave the program, forcing the younger guys to step up and try filling their roles. The majority of Bulldogs fans knew that 2013 would not be 2012 but at the same time failed to prepare themselves realistically for how bad the defense would actually be, leaving these fanatics fuming when (surprise, surprise) the defensive unit was not as good.
Meanwhile, it is important to take into account the success of Georgia’s special teams, or lack thereof. Highly criticized over the last few seasons, the Bulldogs were subpar this season in the punt game, as high snaps, poor blocking, and terrible awareness by the return men led to a handful of blocked and muffed punts in 2013. No matter how great a defense plays, they will be hampered when the special teams unit gives the opponent incredibly advantageous field position, leaving a defense that was more than likely already winded with their backs against the wall. Whether or not Georgia needs a special teams coach is another topic for another day (short answer: yes); the matter at hand is that the sins of the special teams are not the sins of the Dawgs’ defense.
In closing, I believe that Mark Richt’s stance on Todd Grantham should be short and sweet: keep him for the 2014 season, but monitor his coaching and his players’ performance in order to make a reasonable decision for the future. Georgia certainly should be better on defense next season now that these players have had a year to figure the system out and the do’s and don’ts that make it work, so any sort of regression from 2013 would simply be unacceptable. Grantham was thought to be the architect that would render a masterpiece out of the mess that Willie Martinez produced, and while through four seasons his best work was deemed to be a one-hit wonder, that is still not enough to say he cannot get the job done.