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July 25, 2013

'13 Defense: Actually Better than Before?

Grantham and Garrison are pumped for 2013 
... and based on the Bulldogs' inexperienced 
defensive past, they should be.
One of my writing assignments for the newly-released DAWGTIME preseason magazine was to preview Georgia's upcoming defense—a unit deeply depleted from a year ago (as we are all fully aware).  Still, the Bulldogs' school-record seven defenders drafted into the NFL did not seem to daunt my four interviewees for the article—Garrison Smith, Ray Drew, Damian Swann, and Todd Grantham.
"We actually have eight guys on this year’s team who have started on defense before," Grantham was quick to point out when I brought up the fact Georgia returns just four starters from last year's unit (and really just three if you consider the top 11 defenders as far as their number of starts in 2012).  Yes, the coach is correct—eight guys return who have starting experience on the defensive side of the ball.  However, that includes Devin Bowman (1 career start), Connor Norman (2), and Malcolm Mitchell, who started three games at cornerback last year, but will presumably play only wide receiver in 2013.  
The bottom line is that Georgia returns just 59 career defensive starts, and from what I discovered, that is the Bulldogs' lowest returning total in 35 years since the 1978 team.
An additional telling statistic measuring a team's returning experience on defense, and another which is Georgia's lowest since 1978, is one utilized by the acclaimed Phil Steele in his forecasting: percentage of the returning number of tackles from the previous year.  In returning tackles from 2011, Georgia ranks 126th in the FBS, or dead last, returning players who totaled just 34.0 percent of the team's tackles a year ago.
How indicative is a team's percentage of tackles returning?  Well, in the FBS from 2011 to 2012, rather revealing.  I found that 16 FBS schools entered 2012 returning 48 percent or less of their tackles from the previous season.  Of these 16 teams, 10 would allow more points in 2012 than 2011, 11 yielded more offensive yards, and most importantly, just three of the 16 bettered their record from 2011.  Makes sense to me: the less tackles a team has returning, the less tacklers are coming back, rendering a more inexperienced defense which causes most defenses to be in decline from the previous season.  However, as I've presented on this blog a number of times before, Georgia is not like most teams, and its historical trending patterns seem to often go against the norm.
No longer the Junkyard Dogs, the inexperienced 
Wonderdog defense of '78 seemingly improved
from Georgia's defensive unit the year before.  
I soon recalled Georgia's 1978 team returning just three defensive starters from the year before, and then calculated that only 31.9 percent of the team's tackles from '77 returned.  Defensively, things looked bleak for the Bulldogs entering that season and such despair was following a losing 5-6 campaign the year before.  However, as a preseason forecast stated, "Defensive Coach Erk Russell has been known to work miracles," and miracles were indeed worked that year.  Led by an opportune defense, which allowed less than 15 points per game, the '78 "Wonderdogs" shocked the nation with a 9-1-1 regular-season mark.
Entering the last 38 seasons beginning in 1976, I discovered just seven instances, including 1978 and 2013, the Bulldogs returned roughly 50 percent or less of their number of tackles from the year before:
1978- 31.9 percent
2013- 34.0
1989- 46.1
1992- 47.1
2007- 48.3
2002- 49.5
2010- 50.6
Interestingly, four of the six listed campaigns above (excluding 2013) were outstanding years at Georgia—four top-11 finishes in the final AP regular-season poll.  And, for all six seasons, the Bulldogs had admirable defensive units.  I compared these six—the 1978, 1989, 1992, 2002, 2007, and 2010 at-or-less-than-50-percent-returning-tackles seasons—to their previous campaigns, and both sets averaged the exact same number of yards yielded per game (324).  Curiously, Georgia's at-or-less-than-50-percent-returning-tackles set allowed nearly less points per game (17.0 to 19.4) and most significant, averaged a better record of more than a one-game increase from the previous season (6½ games better for the six seasons combined).
In short, most college football defenses go into a decline in seasons when the unit would be regarded as inexperienced compared to its previous year, and rightfully so.  However, on the whole, this hasn't been the case at Georgia.  In fact, the Bulldogs' defense, and the team's overall record, tends to actually get better than before when featuring a depleted defensive unit. 
Historical trends aside, the Bulldogs' talent-filled defense allowed nearly 20 points and 360 yards per game last year.  Against the run specifically, Georgia gave up a staggering 182.1 yards per game and 4.1 yards per carry—both the highest averages for a Bulldog defense since 1994.  Therefore, one could argue Georgia's NFL-laden defense of 2012 was actually the most yielding of the Coach Richt era.

"A year ago, there was some talent playing behind that NFL talent; it's just that some of us didn't get to play a whole lot," Drew told me.  "Considering that, plus the depth we'll have this season, I think our defense will be just fine." 

Considering that—what Drew says—plus the fact the Bulldogs tend to buck certain trends which inhibit other teams, instead of inexperienced, Georgia's defense may very well be distinguished by another "I" word in 2013—improved.


Anonymous said...

Great Post Patrick! Reason for optimism this year on the defensive side. I would be curious to see what kind of offensive firepower returned those years also. I suspect we haven't had this type of offensive talent return ever as a group.

Amanda said...

Yes it is written to be the most defensive part of the game.. amanda vanderpool model