Spring practice brings a fresh start for UGA’s defense

Had Grantham still been on the Bulldogs’ payroll, the season ahead would have become a referendum on him. Would the defense improve? If not, would Grantham be gone? There would have been drama dripping from every third-and-long.

This way Georgia gets a clean break — “A fresh slate,” defensive end Ray Drew said Wednesday — with a new coordinator whose last act was to win the BCS title with Florida State. It’s not often that a head coach makes such an upgrade without having to fire somebody, but such was the opening Grantham handed Mark Richt.

Who, speaking at Wednesday’s pre-spring practice media convocation, said: “The energy level is good in our building right now.”

Said Drew: “There’s a different attitude, a little different mindset. Players have the chance to reinvent themselves. They can become the players they want to be.”

Like Grantham, Jeremy Pruitt will deploy a 3-4 defense as his base. Like Grantham, Pruitt will shift to a four-man line on passing downs. The difference is that Pruitt has no history with these Bulldogs. It’s essentially the same place Pruitt was this time a year ago when he replaced Mark Stoops, who had become Kentucky’s head coach, in Tallahassee.

“Yes, the (FSU) players had an edge,” Pruitt said. “They liked to compete and were used to winning.”

But there surely was more to it than that. As cornerback Damian Swann said: “The new staff has given a lot of guys a fresh start. The competition level (in spring practice) is going to be very high just because of the new staff.”

Drew: “When a new coach comes in, no one has a level of seniority. Everyone is the same to him.”

Georgia lost five games last season because its defense, which is populated by high-profile recruits, didn’t always hold up its end. Only once did a team that beat the Bulldogs score fewer than 31 points, and the one — Nebraska in the Gator Bowl — benefited from a 99-yard touchdown pass. In four other games, Georgia had to score more than 30 points to win. Even with its heavy injury count, the offense roundly outplayed the defense.

“I believe we had spurts last year,” Drew said. “We weren’t as consistent as I’d have liked to see.”

Then this: “If we do play the way we’re supposed to play, we’ll eliminate a lot of those close games. We have the coaches in place, but we have to buy in. The coaches don’t play. It’s up to the players.”

It must be said that Grantham, who was Richt’s fourth choice for the job when Willie Martinez was replaced after the 2009 season, arrived to great fanfare. He coached under Nick Saban and worked for the world-famous Dallas Cowboys. Plus, he had a swagger about him. He acted as if he had all the answers, and for the better part of the 2010 season he did. So it would be wrong to portray Bobby Petrino’s new aide-de-camp as an utter Bulldogs bust.

But Pruitt hasn’t just coached under Saban — he also was part of BCS title-winning staffs at Alabama in 2009 and 2012. (First as the director of player development, then coaching the defensive backfield.) Those rings carry a cachet that Grantham, for all his bluster, can’t match.

Drew again: “We’re willing to buy into a system that works. What’s (Pruitt) got — two or three national championships?”

Those looking ahead to April 12 and G-Day for proof of Pruitt’s tactical prowess probably will be disappointed. Spring practice, he said, is more about fundamentals than scheme. But for Georgia, the weeks ahead will carry more weight than the usual spring. There’s a new coach in a town, a new defensive staff to impress.

“They can give you the playbook,” Drew said, “but it’s up to you to decide if you’re going to put it to the side or how much time you’re willing to spend learning your craft.”

And spring football is, lest we forget, still spring football. No matter what happens between here and G-Day, Clemson won’t arrive at Sanford Stadium until Aug. 30. That’s a ways away.

Someone asked tailback Todd Gurley, who probably won’t play on G-Day because of lingering injuries, if he’s more excited about spring practice or next week’s spring break. “Spring break,” he said.

But go easy, OK? At last check, Gurley plays offense. It’s the defense that has a point to prove.

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