On February 7th, just six days after National Signing Day, Georgia parted ways with assistant coach Tracy Rocker who had been the Bulldogs’ defensive line coach for the last three season from 2014-2016. Three days later, the football team found a replacement, hiring Tray Scott, who had just been hired by Ole Miss a month earlier in January, coming over form North Carolina. Now the question is, can Tray Scott improve Georgia up front on defense?
Looking back at the Georgia football program’s defensive line for the past 5 years, the Bulldogs have had three d-line coaches, Rodney Garner (1998-2012), Chris Wilson (2013), and Tracy Rocker (2014-2016), and under all three, that defensive front has been inconsistent and not as dominant in the trenches as they should have, particularly against the run.
GEORGIA RUN DEFENSE
UGA’s 2012 rush defense gave up 2,550 yards on 616 carries (4.14 ypc) and 17 TDs. Gave up an average of 182.14 ypg which was 12th in the SEC and 80th nationally.
UGA’s 2013 rush defense gave up 1,926 yards on 520 carries (3.70 ypc) and 25 TDs. Gave up an average of 148.15 ypg which was 6th in the SEC and 43nd nationally.
UGA’s 2014 rush defense gave up 2,169 yards on 526 carries (4.12 ypc) and 23 TDs. Gave up an average of 166.85 ypg which was 8th in the SEC and 63rd nationally.
UGA’s 2015 rush defense gave up 1,943 yards on 491 carries (3.96 ypc) and 11 TDs. Gave up an average of 149.46 ypg which was 8th in the SEC and 42nd nationally.
UGA’s 2016 rush defense gave up 1,868 yards on 470 carries (3.97 ypc) and 24 TDs. Gave up an average of 143.69 ypg which was 4th in the SEC and 36th nationally.
In fact, since 2007, in the last 10 years, Georgia has only been ranked in the top-25 in the country in rushing yards allowed per game twice. Credit has to go to Rodney Garner for his 2011 unit that was ranked 3rd in the SEC and 11th in the country in rushing yards allowed per game (101.21). His 2007 squad only allowed 113.8 yards per game on the ground. Part of winning the SEC East and getting the opportunity to play for a Southeastern Conference title starts in the trenches. On offense, your ‘big hog mollies’ have to take charge of the line of scrimmage and enforce their will on the opponent. Likewise, on defense, the defensive line has to hold the line of scrimmage or push it back, to stymie the opponent’s ability to run the ball and make the quarterback have ‘happy’ feet.
And that is the other side of the equation for the d-line. Affecting the quarterback. It’s not just about getting sacks. It’s about getting consistent pressure on the signal caller so that he is uncomfortable. Let’s take a look at the last 5 years again.
GEORGIA AFFECTING THE QB
In Garner’s last year with the Bulldogs in 2012, Georgia sacked the QB 32 times in 14 games, 5th best in the SEC and 29th nationally, and pressured the QB 116 times.
During Wilson’s first and only year with Georgia in 2013, the Bulldogs sacked the QB 33 times in 13 games, 2nd best in the SEC and 29th nationally, and pressured the QB 71 times.
In Rocker’s first year at UGA in 2014, the Bulldogs sacked the QB 28 times and in 13 games, 7th in the SEC and 55th nationally, and pressured the QB 94 times. While the sack totals dropped during Rocker’s first season as d-line coach, the Georgia front actually did a better job of affecting the QB than under Wilson. Here are the remaining two seasons under Rocker.
2015: Georgia sacked the QB 21 times in 13 games, which was 10th in the SEC and 94th overall nationally, and pressured the QB 53 times.
2016: Georgia sacked the QB 29 times in 13 games, 6th in the SEC and 46th nationally, and pressured the QB 36 times.
While the Bulldogs were able to bring down the opponents’ QBs more often in 2016, as you can see, the ability of Georgia to affect the QB with pressure has dropped significantly last year and in fact, over the last two seasons. Sacks are sexy but the d-line has to get more pressure on the QB, more than 2 or 3 hurries per game. It has been frustrating to watch quarterbacks play against the Georgia D and put up big numbers. Part of that is due to the fact that they are just too comfortable sitting in the pocket. But there is a silver lining here. Twenty-six of Georgia’s 36 QB pressures came in their last six games of the season.
It was evident that the Bulldogs’ defensive front played better in the latter half of the season versus the first 6 to 7 games. That was in part due to the youth of the unit. John Atkins was the lone upperclassman last season, and he was a junior. Everyone else was a true freshman or true sophomore, outside of Justin Young, who was a redshirt freshman. That improvement in the last six games for Georgia came with Tracy Rocker coaching d-line; so, now, that he is gone, can Tray Scott pick up where Rocker left off and improve on it?
In order to have a championship defense, the Bulldogs need to go from being in the middle of the road in the SEC and nationally in both run defense and affecting the QB, to being one of the top 3 teams in the SEC and top 25 nationally. For starters, getting the rushing yards allowed per game down to 125 or below would go a long way to shoring up the front and more importantly, allowing fewer rushing touchdowns, especially in the red zone.
Georgia’s red zone defense struggled last season. While the Bulldogs did an adequate job of keeping opponents out of the red zone, 4th best in the SEC and 37th nationally, when they did reach it, of the 43 trips inside the Dogs’ side of the 20, opponents punched it into the endzone 32 times. In other words, Georgia’s opponents scored 3 touchdowns for approximately every 4 trips inside the Bulldogs’ red zone. That was dead last in the SEC and 121st out of 128 teams nationally. Not good, and it has to get better if we want to see Georgia win more than 8 games in 2017.
Doing the research for this article was eye opening for me as I staunchly defended Tracy Rocker over the last 3 seasons. I don’t think he was a bad d-line coach. There was improvement along the d-line during the last half of the season as I noted earlier; however, there were obvious areas that need improvement. I could probably bore you with more numbers, more stats, but I don’t think I need to. Now, the duty falls on Tray Scott to develop this Bulldog defensive front into a top 25 unit, and there are already question marks with one of the stars of that unit.
Trenton Thompson withdrew from classes last week to deal with an undisclosed medical condition that is seriously affecting his health, and although, coaches, players, and fans hope he returns over the summer for fall, there is no guarantee that he will. The good news is that this 2017 defensive line unit is more experienced than last year’s group. Every d-lineman that played in 2016 is back. There is senior nose tackle John Atkins along with rising junior defensive tackle DaQuan Hawkins-Muckle and defensive end Jonathan Ledbetter to go along with a talented group of rising sophomores in Michail Carter, Tyler Clark, David Marshall, Julian Rochester, and Justin Young, and each one of them saw playing time.
These Bulldogs have a chance to be special group that could rival some of Georgia’s d-lines of the late 90s and early 2000s when the guys like Antonio Cochran, Robert Geathers, Charles Grant, Josh Mallard, David Pollack, Richard Seymour, Marcus Stroud, and Johnathan Sullivan terrorized in the trenches. Hopefully, Tray Scott is the man that can get this group there.