By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
So far, it has been a split with regards to the defensive position groups. We’ve given Georgia the edge in the secondary and Clemson the edge at linebacker. Now it is time to break the tie with a look at the defensive fronts for both teams.
Before we begin, it seems relevant to contrast the ways in which the two defensive coordinators utilize and view the defensive line in their respective schemes. Georgia’s Todd Grantham prefers to use a 3-4 look, with an odd number of players on the line of scrimmage. The goal is for the defensive linemen to occupy blockers and disrupt the backfield so linebackers can make plays—much like Clemson attempted to do under Kevin Steele.
Meanwhile, Brent Venables prefers a 4-3 front. While the goal of freeing up linebackers remains the same, the 4-3 allows for more versatility among the D-linemen, particularly the ends. Therefore, it stands to reason that Clemson’s line would be responsible for more plays as a percentage of total snaps than Georgia’s line.
Last season, Georgia’s defensive linemen accounted for 81 out of 577 solo tackles (14 percent) and 107 out of 490 assisted tackles (21.8 percent). Assuming each assist counts as one-half of a tackle—which is often, but not always, the case—the linemen totaled approximately 16% of the team’s total tackles last season, a low number.
Using the same scale, Clemson’s defensive linemen contributed 104 of the team’s 531 solo tackles (19.6 percent) and 125 of its 399 assists (31.3 percent). This is good for approximately 23 percent of the team’s tackles a season ago.
As you can see, the Tigers should count on more production from their four linemen as a whole than the Bulldogs should from their three.
The Bulldogs really struggled against the run last season, which is surprising given the supply of NFL-ready players that started for Mark Richt’s team a season ago. Big junior defensive end Garrison Smith led the unit with 57 tackles last season. He added eight quarterback pressures in 2012 and will be the elder statesman for the Bulldogs up front.
Sophomore Sterling Bailey and junior Ray Drew will take on the lion’s share of the workload at the other end. Drew saw more snaps in 2012, but Bailey came on strong in the spring, and how Richt and Grantham decide to divide up the chances for each of them is worth watching moving forward.
Nose tackle is where the Bulldogs may struggle the most. Last season, John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers combined for 90 tackles, seven tackles for loss, two sacks, and 16 quarterback pressures in the middle of the line. Both have moved on to the NFL, leaving the anchor spot in the Georgia defense to a triad of players who registered a combined ZERO tackles last season—Mike Thornton, Chris Mayes, and John Atkins.
The Tigers, meanwhile, return a large chunk of the talented front that made significant strides in Venables’ first season at the helm of the defense. Juniors Grady Jarrett and Josh Watson got the nod as starters coming out of the spring, but Deshawn Williams, D.J. Reader, and Carlos Watkins should be major contributors inside. Former tackles Jarvis Jenkins and Brandon Thompson were very good at Clemson from 2007-2011, but the Tigers have not boasted this much depth at defensive tackle in quite a while, maybe since the days of Brentson Buckner and Chester McGlockton in the early 1990s.
One defensive end looks to belong to junior Vic Beasley, who impressed as a pass rusher last season when he had eight sacks after spending time as a nomad who bounced around among several positions. Juniors Corey Crawford and Tavaris Barnes are listed as co-starters at strong side end. Crawford contributed twice as many tackles as Barnes last season, but Barnes earned his keep with a string of strong performances down the stretch.
Keep an eye on freshman Shaq Lawson as well. The early enrollee shredded the competition at Hargrave Military Academy last season and was impressive during spring drills. His presence gives the Tigers a natural pass rusher with size, which should help him earn his fair share of snaps this season.
The Bottom Line: Given the differences in scheme, it was an uphill battle for Georgia in this position group from the get-go. But this time last year, with Jenkins and Geathers in the mix, the Bulldogs were light years ahead of the Tigers.
What a difference a year makes in terms of development. Now Clemson sits comfortably with at least eight players expected to contribute, who cut their teeth last season, while Georgia rebuilds. This is an edge that rather overwhelmingly favors the Tigers.