ATHENS, Ga. — Shawn Williams has never been much for restraint. The Georgia safety’s play earlier this season led to a famous near-fight between two coaches.
So it wasn’t surprising when Williams, asked this week to compare the Georgia and LSU defense, passed on being modest.
“I think we’re better,” Williams said.
A step out of line? Not really.
Several of his teammates echoed him. Whether it’s over-confidence or just bravado, Georgia players are embracing the comparison with their LSU counterpart.
It could be a miscalculation. But it’s also a sign of how far the Bulldogs defense has come in a short amount of time.
Two years ago, Georgia had fallen so fast that the defensive staff was basically overhauled. Coach Mark Richt fired one of his longtime friends, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez.
Richt decided he wanted a 3-4 defense, and he ended up hiring Todd Grantham, who had spent the previous 11 years in the NFL as an assistant. During the past two years Grantham has gained a reputation for some blowups:
Last year, he made a choke sign at a Florida kicker, and this year, he got into a postgame shouting match with Vanderbilt coach James Franklin (Franklin was angry at a perceived cheap shot by Williams.).
But Grantham’s swagger and energy have transferred to his players. And Grantham’s system is working: The Bulldogs rank fifth in the nation in fewest yards allowed, and the defense is the major reason they went 10-2 and won the Southeastern Conference East.
“The numbers are there. Numbers don’t lie,” Williams said. “People are going to believe what they want to believe. And right now they don’t believe that we can beat LSU. But we’ll see on Saturday.”
“This is a game for us to go out there and get our respect,” safety Bacarri Rambo said. “A lot of people still don’t respect us. So if we go out there and handle our business, then most definitely we’ll get respect after this game.”
Georgia didn’t see an immediate turnaround under Grantham. There were slight improvements last year, but still a propensity to give up big plays, and the run defense had some porous games.
Entering this year, the team’s hope was that the addition of a big, physical nose guard would have an effect on the rest of the defense. Junior college transfer John Jenkins and sophomore Kwame Geathers have indeed played well at nose tackle, and the interior run defense has been superb.
The pass defense has also improved drastically, going from last in the SEC last year in third-down defense, to third this year. The simplest reason for that is experience: The five defensive backs who play the most are all juniors and seniors.
Finally, the Bulldogs are making big plays. They have the SEC leaders in sacks (Jarvis Jones with 13.5) and interceptions (Rambo with seven).
“We’ve got great players on our side of the ball,” Rambo said. “We have one of the best pass rushers in the league. We’ve got some good linebackers, some good people in the secondary. So I feel like we’re up there with the LSUs and Alabamas.
“People are overlooking us because we haven’t been winning these recent years, but now we’re winning, so it’s time for us to put Georgia on the map.”
Detractors point to Georgia’s schedule. Only three of its opponents rank in the top 50 nationally in total offense: Bosie State (11), Georgia Tech (19) and New Mexico State (48).
LSU, by comparison, has played four teams in the top 35.
Then there’s the first time the Bulldogs played in the Georgia Dome this year: Boise State amassed 390 total yards on the way to a 35-21 victory. Quarterback Kellen Moore had little trouble against the Georgia pass defense.
But in Georgia’s defense — literally — Rambo was suspended for that game, and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree broke his foot on the third series. (Boise State did not score on the first two series.)
The next week, Georgia lost 45-42 to South Carolina. But the Gamecocks got 21 of those points off special teams or defensive touchdowns, and another touchdown was set up by a long fumble return to the 5-yard line.
“I feel like we’ve improved a lot since then,” Williams said. “We’ve got more players back than we had (against Boise State). We’re just clicking on all cylinders right now.”