Heading into the 2020 season, Georgia’s defense returns a boatload of talent from a year ago that ranked No. 1 in the nation in scoring defense.
Many experts will admit that the Bulldogs’ defensive unit is definitely the strength of the team, and head coach Kirby Smart won’t disagree. The unit also led the SEC in several categories, including total defense, scoring defense and rushing defense. Now, with a lot of talented players who have a bit more experience, expectations for this year’s squad are even higher than what they were a year ago.
But, as always, Smart has some concerns heading into the fall.
“I’m excited about the defensive unit and the biggest concern is the complacency, the have-we-arrived,” said Smart during an interview on ESPN’s College Football Podcast with David Pollack and Kevin Negandhi. “They’ve gotten a lot of hype off the returners and what they did last year, which does nothing for this year. But, I’m excited about this defensive group, if they approach things the right way. I would have gotten a really good impression on that from spring.”
Smart also admitted that he has seen complacency take hold of other defenses he’s coached before.
“I was part of a lot of defenses at Alabama that were coming off really good years, then came out in the spring and laid an egg,” Smart said. “I didn’t get to see that, I didn’t get to feel that psyche of that group—were they hungry or were they complacent? It’s a disease. It just creeps in if you’re not careful, so we can’t have that.”
Since Smart’s inaugural year as a head coach in 2016, he has never been afraid to play true freshman if they’ve shown that they are ready to compete. Last year, there were several young Bulldogs that made a huge impact during their freshman campaigns.
“I think when you look at the guys last year who were freshmen for us, who got a little taste, those will be the guys who step up the most,” Smart said. “Now, maybe not at the same pace they would have, had they had a spring game with 70, 80 thousand people in the stands, and they get to grow and get some of those butterflies out the way. There is still going to be a growth and maturation process.”
Nonetheless, Smart named four guys who fit the description of what he’s talking about.
“The biggest leap you make is from year one to year two, and I’m expecting those guys, Nakobe Dean, Travon Walker, Tyrique Stevenson, Lewis Cine; there were some talented young players on that defense whom I think will step up—and offense, too,” said Smart. “But I’m excited to see those guys. And on the flip side, offensively, I’m excited to see which guys want to step up.”
All four of those players contributed in a big way last year, and there were also some others who showed up in a big way during the win over Baylor in the Sugar Bowl.
“We got to see a little taste of it in the bowl game with Zamir (White) getting some stuff, Kenny McIntosh getting some action; I think George (Pickens) has the potential to do some good things,” Smart said. “We’ve got some good young players on the offensive side of the ball, but we’ve got to be able to use their skill set and get them involved.”
Smart made it clear that if the Bulldogs want to compete for a national title, then that much is a given in terms of winning.
“We haven’t gotten where we want to go. I think everybody understands that in this building. We try not to let the outside noise affect us,” Smart said. “We know our goals, we know our aspirations, we know the capabilities we have, and we try to maintain focus on that. So I’m not looking backwards on the things we’ve done, just like I’m not trying to look way out forward, either.”