VanGorder has defense ready every game

"I've never met coaches who prepare like our defensive staff," safety Sean Jones said. "We basically know what the other team is going to run."

ATHENS — Brian VanGorder and the other members of No. 7 Georgia's defensive coaching staff went home sometime between 1 a.m. and 1:30 a.m. today.

Their players had been out of the Butts-Mehre Building practice facility for at least five hours by that point so they don't get a good idea during of the week of the kind of hours their coaches work. They know on Saturdays, though.

"I've never met coaches who prepare like our defensive staff," safety Sean Jones said. "We basically know what the other team is going to run."

VanGorder, the Bulldogs' third-year defensive coordinator, and his staff work from 8 a.m. to 1 or 1:30 Sunday through Wednesday, he said.

On Thursdays, the team's Family Night, they're usually out of the building by dark, and Fridays they're traveling with the team.

Those long hours don't set them apart from most other college coaches in the country, but their results do. Georgia is third in the nation in scoring defense, first in the SEC in red zone defense and fourth in the conference in total defense.

"It's still so early it's hard to tell (how good the defense is)," VanGorder said. "There are still big moments ahead of us. We'll have to see when they face some adversity if they can maintain the consistency they've shown so far."

The Bulldogs (3-0, 1-0 SEC) might face that adversity when they play No. 11 LSU at 3:30 p.m. Saturday in Baton Rouge. The Tigers (3-0) are fourth in the country in scoring offense (47.7 points per game) and 15th in total offense (470.7 yards per game).

Since halftime of the Auburn game, the Bulldogs have given up fewer total points (47) than the Tigers are averaging per game this year.

That's an average of 7.2 points per game. The first team defense has given up only three points, and Georgia is allowing just 5.7 per game through the first three games. Those kind of numbers were almost expected of the 2002 defense, which had three starters drafted by NFL teams, but the carryover from last year to this has surprised even VanGorder.

The Bulldogs start five underclassmen on defense and have been without two starters — safety Kentrell Curry and defensive end Will Thompson of Warner Robins — all season. (Curry is expected back by the Oct. 4 Alabama game. Thompson is out for the year.)

Senior cornerback Bruce Thornton attributes the defense's accelerated learning curve to the experience the young players gained last year.

"A lot of guys listened," he said.

Georgia hasn't dominated teams in the middle of the field. Their opponents have gained 46 first downs, which puts them in the middle of the conference pack statistically. It's the red zone defense that has set them apart so far. The Bulldogs have allowed only one field goal in the six times their opponent has been inside the 20-yard line.

"People have controlled the ball on us at times, but when they get onto the short field, we've been fantastic," Coach Mark Richt said. "It's just been unbelievable how we've done in the red zone defensively."

Richt also pointed out that the offense has done its share to help by turning the ball over only once and keeping the ball more than half the game on average. Only one of their opponents' 33 drives have started in Bulldog territory. Seventeen have started inside the opponents' 20-yard line.

"If we only let (the defense) be on the field a little bit, we feel like they can make people hurt," offensive lineman Bartley Miller said.

Last year's defense became known as strong closers by giving up just 38 points in the second half of the last eight games. That statistic earned VanGorder the reputation of a halftime mastermind, but he says it had more to do with last year's defense starting games jittery and taking a while to settle into the system. This year's team has been calm and collected from the start, he said.

"They've been very loose," he said. "They're a high-energy group that is feeling confident."

Adjustments are overrated, VanGorder said. It's the scheme, and running it well, that wins, he said, and Georgia's scheme is not revolutionary.

"We're pretty basic in what we do," VanGorder said. "We're not inventing anything new."

VanGorder's two main focuses are execution and speed. Richt refers to him as "a stickler" for details. The first thing VanGorder looks for in a player he's recruiting is "playing speed," he said. He's more intrigued by the player who runs a 4.7 40-yard dash and plays football at a 4.7 rate than the player who runs a 4.4 and plays at 4.7 or 4.8 pace. That's an indication of a player's intentions, he said.

"We want players to get to the ball with bad intentions," he said.

"It's a collision sport, and we like guys who get to the football playing full speed."

The "we" he's referring to is himself, defensive ends coach Jon Fabris, defensive line coach Rodney Garner and secondary coach Willie Martinez. (VanGorder coaches the linebackers.) All four coaches have been with the Bulldogs for the last three years, which is as long as the team has had the same defensive coordinator since 1998.

"There's really no grayness among the staff," Martinez said. "That's a good sign. We're all talking about the same things. The players are hearing the same terms. That's what breeds consistency."

When Richt hired VanGorder out of Western Illinois, Georgia's fan base reacted with a collective, "Who?" His name is well-known now. He was a finalist last year for the Frank Broyles Assistant Coach of the Year Award, and the same Georgia fans who wondered who the heck he was three years ago are now terrified he'll leave to take a head coaching job.

"You'd like for him to stick around, but there are always opportunities for guys who do excellent work," Richt acknowledged.

VanGorder was a head coach at three high schools and then for two years at Wayne State. He has acknowledged in the past that he would like to be a head coach again some day, but he said this week that it's not foremost on his mind.

"I'm happy at Georgia," he said. "I like working for Coach Richt. I feel like this is a good place to be, and I'd like to be here for a long time."

And he doesn't just mean Sunday through Wednesday.

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