ATHENS, Ga.—Statistically, it is has to be one of the biggest one-year turnarounds by a particular unit in Georgia football history: the play of the Bulldogs’ secondary—namely, the pass defense—from 2013 to last season.
Under the guidance of defensive coordinator Todd Grantham in 2013, Georgia yielded a passing efficiency defensive rating of 134.74, or the second-worst by a Bulldog squad since opposing passing statistics became available in their entirety in 1977.
That offseason, Grantham left for Louisville, and in stepped Jeremy Pruitt into the role as Georgia’s defensive coordinator.
Following Pruitt’s arrival, Tray Matthews, Josh Harvey-Clemons, and Shaq Wiggins—talented defensive backs who started a combined 25 games in 2013—all soon transferred from Georgia, leaving the cupboard practically bare in the Bulldog secondary. Nevertheless, somehow by seemingly a miracle—or, because of a miracle worker of sorts in Pruitt—Georgia’s pass defense promptly transformed from substandard to near spectacular.
“Our mindset,” sophomore Aaron Davis claimed as the primary reason for the secondary’s sudden improvement. “We came into [last season] with a really relentless mindset: we would not let other teams bully us around and make big plays on us.”
After redshirting in 2013, Davis, who still remains a walk-on, started last season in a secondary which limited the opposition to a passing efficiency of only 105.79—the seventh-best in the nation. In addition, the lowly rating was the second-best by a Georgia pass defense in the previous eight seasons (2007-2014), and the fifth-best by the Bulldogs the last 22 years (1993-2014).
Entering fall camp, Davis was listed as one of the defense’s starting cornerbacks; sophomore Malkom Parrish, who was a prominent backup last season, the other.
“We owe it all to effort—flying to the ball,” replied junior safety Quincy Mauger when asked the reason for the turnaround. Mauger, who is the lone returner in the secondary who was a starter for both the 2013 and 2014 campaigns, is again slotted as the first-string strong safety. Sophomore Dominick Sanders, who last season became the first Bulldog freshman (true or redshirt) defensive back to start all of his team’s games in 32 years, is listed as the starting free safety.
Regarding Georgia’s improvement in pass defense under Pruitt, Mauger added that the secondary, or any one individual, shouldn’t receive all the credit. “It’s just not a single guy making plays,” he stressed. “[Players at the 11 different defensive positions] all work together. I feel like when we all give effort, everything comes easy.”
If there is any concern for defending the pass in 2015, perhaps it’s the Bulldogs’ lack of experienced depth in the secondary.
“Besides those guys (the aforementioned Davis, Parrish, Mauger, and Sanders), there’s not a whole lot of guys that have ever played [at Georgia],” Pruitt said. “But, the good thing is we got somewhere probably between eight and 15 guys [in the secondary] that have an opportunity to contribute.”
One of those reserve “guys,” senior Devin Bowman, has actually seen significant playing time, starting nine games for his career, including eight a year ago. Entering preseason practice, Bowman was listed as a reserve cornerback.
Notably, including Bowman, the Bulldogs return four starting defensive backs from a year ago. It represents the first time beginning in the early 1970s, when the program started regularly utilizing four or more defensive backs, Georgia returns four members of its secondary who started at least half the team’s games the year before.
Others joining Bowman in reserve roles are Johnathan Abram and Jarvis Wilson, both of whom are early-enrollee freshmen who stood out during the spring, and slotted as second-string safeties behind Mauger and Sanders, respectively. Also practicing with the safeties thus far in camp is true freshman Rashad Roundtree, who was considered one of the top overall prospects in the state of Georgia coming out of high school.
With the recent departure to the NFL by Damian Swann, who was considered Georgia’s fifth starter in the secondary a year ago at the “Star” position, perhaps another concern for the secondary in 2015 is who will take on a leadership role.
“Hopefully, we have guys that can step into that [leadership] role,” Pruitt said. Notwithstanding, the defensive coordinator apparently should have plenty of leaders in the Georgia secondary for the 2015 season.
“Yes, sir, [all of the defensive backs] are [leaders],” Mauger declared, “whether we’re freshmen, seniors, [sophomores or juniors]. There’s no specific single leader [in the secondary]. We all have a responsibility, and we all take pride in our role.”
One would likely think last season’s pass defense would be difficult to outperform in 2015. However, considering all the returning experience and apparent leadership in this season’s Bulldog secondary, the remarkable one-year turnaround in 2014 could very well be topped.