By PAUL NEWBERRY
ATHENS, Ga. (AP) — Kirby Smart has coached some stellar defenses.
This might be one of his best.
Never mind the lack of star power.
“They’ve got some of those same traits as the good defenses I’ve been able to be around,” the Georgia coach said Monday. “But this group probably doesn’t have that star, elite player. There’s no guy on there that you can say is just going to be a first-round pick. That’s not what this is made of. It’s made of a group of guys that buy in to doing it the right way and playing team defense.”
The No. 5 Bulldogs, whose national title hopes are still alive heading into Saturday’s big game at No. 13 Auburn, have posted three shutouts in a season for the first time since 1981. They’re leading the Southeastern Conference and among the top five nationally in several major categories, including points allowed (10.1 per game), rushing defense (74.6 yards) and total yards (260.3).
Most impressively, Georgia is the only major-college team that’s yet to allow a rushing touchdown this season.
While the Bulldogs do have senor safety J.R. Reed, a semifinalist for the Bednarik Award as the nation’s best defensive player, they lack the sort of dominating defenders who were the hallmark of previous teams.
No Roquan Smith. No Leonard Floyd. No Jarvis Jones.
No one who looks like an early first-round NFL draft pick.
“The number one thing that stands out is their work ethic,” Smart said. “I mean they work really hard every day. The meetings, the game planning meetings are a joy to be in, because they’re very interactive, meaning they communicate with you. They don’t just sit there and listen. They answer questions. They ask questions. They take on the personality of their defensive staff, which is energetic.”
This past Saturday, they kept up that enthusiasm right to the very end, even when the outcome of the game was no longer in doubt.
With Georgia leading 27-0, Missouri had second-and-goal at the 1-yard line in the closing minutes. It didn’t really matter if the Tigers scored, but the Bulldogs weren’t about to make things easy. Monty Rice sliced through the line and threw Dawson Downing for a 3-yard loss, the Bulldogs forced two incomplete passes, and the third shutout of 2019 was complete.
“The players on this defense don’t pride ourselves on trying to be superstars,” defensive tackle Michael Barnett said. “We don’t look at individual statistics that much.”
Before arriving to Georgia in 2016, Smart ran some of the greatest defenses in college football history on Nick Saban’s staff at Alabama.
He’s brought that same sort of hard-nosed mindset to the Bulldogs.
“We’re just guys that go out there and do their job,” Reed said. “It’s not about one single person, it’s about guys going out there, doing their job, and guys working hard.”
While Smart maintains a hefty influence on the defensive side of the line, Dan Lanning has made his mark right away. Only 33, he was promoted to coordinator this season after serving one year as the outside linebackers coach, assuming the role when Mel Tucker left to become the head coach at Colorado.
Lanning’s high-energy approach has been a hit with his players.
So has his attention to the small details.
“He finds little stats, like last year we knew Missouri, they ran the ball on us, they had four touchdowns, 182 yards, 5.2 yards a carry,” Reed said. “So those are things that engraved in my head while we’re going through practice and so we knew we had to go out there and stop the run. Doing things like that and showing us, basically like going to the doctor, showing us what we need to fix after each game.”
Georgia (8-1, 5-1) can clinch its third straight SEC East title and a spot in the league championship game with a victory over Auburn (7-2, 4-2), but the Bulldogs will be going against a defense that is nearly as good on the stat sheet and probably has more elite NFL prospects, especially along the front line.
It all sets up a defensive struggle on the Plains.
“Their defense speaks for itself,” Smart said. “They’ve got a ton of guys that are going to be drafted on it. They’ve got guys that seem like they’ve have played in our conference for 10 years.”