Honestly, it all started with Dan Hawkins.
Georgia fans celebrate Joe Cox' last minute heroics in Colorado's 14-13 loss to Georgia in 2006, but tend to forget Colorado's red-zone ineptness -- a blocked field goal and a false start penalty negating a touchdown -- which gave the Dawgs the chance to win. The Buffs' offense was woeful that season (107th nationally in scoring offense), yet it put more points on the board in Athens than in its home loss to 1-AA Montana State.
Hawkins' game plan exploited two structural weaknesses in Georgia's defense: the inability of the defensive line to control a mobile quarterback and the gaps in the flats that allowed the tight ends and running backs to flourish in a short passing game. Colorado's quarterback wound up as the game's leading rusher and completed more passes against Georgia's defense than any other he saw that season. A slightly more able supporting cast would have walked out of Athens with the win. Offensive coordinators not named Woody McCorvey aren't stupid. They took note. Hawkins' template was absorbed, refined and deployed, to the repeated dismay of the Georgia faithful.
Combine the uncorrected flaws in Willie Martinez's scheme with steadily deteriorating fundamentals -- especially masochistic Georgia fans could watch the Atlanta Falcons' defense to remind themselves what Brian VanGorder -- coached defensive players who know where to go and what to do when they get there look like -- and the result was a defense that yielded more points in each succeeding season under Martinez's direction. That's a recipe for taxing Mark Richt's patience to the breaking point.
Ultimately, that's what happened. Richt dismissed the long-serving Martinez after the 2009 regular season ended and replaced him with the Dallas Cowboys' defensive line coach, Todd Grantham. Grantham's hire heralds a dramatic change in scheme. The Dawgs have abandoned the 4-3 defense that was a hallmark since Richt's arrival in Athens for the one-gap 3-4 alignment which Grantham coached in Dallas.
The scheme change has received its share of buzz. Many see it as part of a larger trend in college football of employing 3-4 defenses to counter the rise of spread-option offenses. Yet that's never been the rationale for the hire that Richt himself has promoted. Here's his response to a direct question about that at SEC Media Days:
Q. So many different college football teams running variations of the spread offense. Any way to look around and see what people are doing that signals what the next trend in offense might be?
COACH RICHT: Not really. I think the next trend will be whatever people are doing — the teams are winning is what I’m getting at. If you win using a certain system, everybody is going to say, that’s the system to go to…
I do believe that you can win running just about any system. You can probably win running just about any defensive scheme. I mean, you can play great defense in a 3-4. You can play great defense in a 4-3. You can play a great defense in the 3-5, however you want to align it. I think the thing that’s important is your personnel, how well they understand what you’re doing and how well they can execute what you’re doing…
It's worth remembering that only one of the other candidates Richt reportedly considered as Martinez' replacement had recent experience coaching a 3-4 scheme. So it's fair to say that Richt wasn't married to this particular scheme change when he made the hire. Which begs the key question: what did Richt have in mind when he decided to change course?
He wasn't thinking about shortcomings in talent, certainly. Grantham inherits a defensive roster stocked with plenty of highly rated recruits. Despite missing three games, Justin Houston wound up third in the conference in sacks and second in tackles for loss in 2009. There's no returning SEC defensive player with better numbers. His counterpart at the other OLB spot, Cornelius Washington, is a 250+ pound physical freak who ran the 100 meter dash in 11.25 seconds in high school. (Good news, depth-wise: Washington is being pressed by the hero of the 2008 LSU game, senior Darryl Gamble.) Bacarri Rambo, besides being blessed with the best name on Georgia's roster, is a gifted safety whom much of the fan base insists should have started last season.
Georgia's problem hasn't been talent; it's been training and deployment. That's what Richt wants fixed. That's Grantham's real challenge this season and the key to watching Georgia's 2010 defense.
Grantham preaches aggressiveness. But it's an aggression derived from playing fundamental football, not blitzing like crazy down after down. Players who line up correctly, get where they're going efficiently and finish plays once they get there are what make his defense aggressive. As Grantham put it, "So I want us to do all those things and be fundamentally sound, and then when we’re done playing, the other team is excited they don’t have to play us anymore."
Now Grantham finds himself in a race. He's the only coach on the staff who fully knows what he wants to do scheme-wise. His assistants are learning on the go, as are the players. Glitches on the field and personnel issues are inevitable with a change as drastic as the one Georgia is undergoing. The hope in Athens is that whatever the defense has to suffer through as it climbs the 3-4 learning curve will be more than offset by the renewed emphasis on solid fundamental play.
So early on, don't get overly caught up with the shiny new 3-4 toy and whether Grantham has the personnel on hand to run the scheme to its maximum effect. Watch instead to see if players are again doing the fundamental things which made the Georgia defense respected nationally. That'll be a pretty good indication Grantham and his staff know what they're doing. If so, this year's defense has a chance to be, if not great, at least good enough. After the last few seasons, I suspect Mark Richt will gladly take that.