Players credit VanGorder for defense's rise to top

2002 Georgia defense in SEC rankings: Scoring defense, first, (15.3 points allowed); red zone defense, first (opponents score 59 percent of the time inside the Georgia 20-yard line); rushing defense, third (113.9 yards allowed); total defense, fourth,(306.7 yards allowed).

ATHENS, Ga. - In making his case for Brian VanGorder as the true difference-maker on the Georgia defense, David Pollack first lists the players who have left the unit for the NFL the past two years.

 The list includes 2002 Pro Bowl selection Richard Seymour, 2001 Defensive Rookie of the Year Kendrell Bell, Marcus Stroud, Will Witherspoon, Jermaine Phillips, Josh Mallard, Terreal Bierria, Tim Wansley and Charles Grant.

 Says Pollack: "In order from 2000 to 2001 to 2002, I think the (defensive) talent has gone down.''

 Then Pollack takes a look at the production of the defense.

 In 2001, the unit finished third in the Southeastern Conference in scoring defense and rushing defense, ranking in the top 20 nationally in both categories.

 This year, Georgia, which plays Florida State in the Jan. 1 Sugar Bowl, leads the SEC and ranks fourth in the nation in scoring defense. It also leads the league in red-zone defense.

 Pollack's conclusion: "It's Coach VanGorder, no doubt about it.''

 Others agree. VanGorder, Georgia's defensive coordinator, this year was a finalist for the Broyles Award given to the nation's top assistant coach.

 Said Pollack, the SEC Player of the Year as selected by the league's coaches: "(VanGorder) is the real reason for the success we're having, and I think everybody will realize that over the years.''

 Perhaps the best reflection of VanGorder's impact is to track the performance of the defense after he has a chance to make halftime adjustments.

 Over the last six games, Georgia has allowed only 24 second-half points - only four points per second half - against Kentucky, Florida, Ole Miss, Auburn, Georgia Tech and Arkansas.

 The defense shut out two high-scoring offenses - Kentucky and Ole Miss - in the second half. Georgia Tech and Auburn each scored only seven second-half points.

 Auburn managed only one first down on six fourth-quarter possessions as the Georgia defense put the offense in position to win.

 For the first time since 1987, Georgia has not allowed 30 points to a team all season.

 "It just shows what teamwork can do and what playing in a system can do,''

Pollack said. "It's just amazing and we're going to keep fighting under his system and he puts us in position to make plays.''

 Cornerback Decory Bryant says VanGorder's winning formula begins with thorough preparation.

 "All the time he will take his time and break an offense down and he will go over it and go over it until everyone understands what his responsibilities are and have us very well prepared,'' Bryant said.

 "It seems like when he comes to our defensive meetings ... he knows everything off the top of his head. We believe in him and believe in his system and that's why we've been able to be successful.''

 VanGorder was unknown to most Georgia fans when he was picked as perhaps the most crucial hire on new head coach Mark Richt's staff two years ago.

 Georgia fans were expecting to hear the name of an established coach, preferably one with extensive experience in the SEC like Neil Callaway, the man Richt hired as offensive coordinator.

 Instead, when VanGorder was hired his most recent coaching stops had been at Western Illinois, Central Michigan and Central Florida.

 It was as Central Florida's defensive coordinator in 1995 that VanGorder first made an impression on Richt, then the offensive coordinator at Florida State.

 VanGorder's Central Florida team was outmanned by Florida State's talent in the Seminoles' 46-14 win. Even so, Florida State ranked second in the nation with its average of 48.4 points per game that year, and so VanGorder's scheme was so successful it was copied by other teams playing the Seminoles later in the season - including by Virginia in an upset win over Florida State.

 Now, VanGorder again is preparing a defense to face Florida State. This time, VanGorder went to Richt for scouting reports on some Florida State players, and Richt says he was fearful of steering his top defensive coach the wrong way.

 "I don't want to say too much to him because in my opinion Brian is one of the best defensive coordinators in America, and I don't want to mess him up,'' Richt said.

 "I'd rather him just see what he normally sees (on game film) and react on what he would normally do rather than me influence it in any way.''

 VanGorder's defense finished strong, allowing a combined total of 10 points in routs of Georgia Tech and Arkansas.

 If he could have been in charge of the schedule, VanGorder would have had the Sugar Bowl set for the week after the SEC championship victory over Arkansas, when his defense could maintain its momentum.

 "I'm a little nervous about the fact we were playing pretty good at the end and had a good tempo going,'' VanGorder said.

 Added VanGorder: "For whatever reason, I think this is a little closer team (than last year). The leadership of (Tony) Gilbert and (Boss) Bailey has been tremendous. Johnathan Sullivan had such a great year, then there was the emergence of Pollack.''

 Entering the season, Sullivan, Bailey and Gilbert were the only established starters. Bruce Thornton was the only returning starter in the secondary, but even he had briefly lost his job late in the 2001 season.

 "(The defense) was looked at early in the season as kind of a weak link, and they grabbed onto that and used it as inspiration,'' VanGorder said.

 The last season Georgia led the league in scoring defense was 1982, the last year it won the SEC.

 The defense seemed to gain momentum through the season. The most points Georgia allowed was in its season-opening 31-28 victory over Clemson.

 The unit was at its best when the SEC title was on the line. It held Auburn to 99 yards in the second half as Georgia rallied to beat the Tigers and win the Eastern Division.

 Arkansas managed only 65 yards in the second half, and 139 yards overall, as Georgia won its first conference title in 20 years.

 "I definitely like the mental edge we had gained at the end of the year,'' VanGorder said. "The intensity and overall tackling was better.''

 VanGorder says "Guys being in the system another year really helps'' but he stops short of taking credit for the success of the defense.

 "Credit belongs to a lot of people: Players, number one; Coach Richt, number two,'' VanGorder said. "In (secondary coach) Willie Martinez, (defensive ends coach) Jon Fabris and (defensive line coach) Rodney Garner, I'm blessed with a really good defensive staff.''

 The staff will be challenged by a Florida State offense that averaged 31.9 points per game in the regular season. The offense was extremely balanced, rushing for 192.5 yards per game and passing for 216 yards per game.

 VanGorder says the Florida State offense will be just as dangerous with a new starter, Fabian Walker, replacing Chris Nix at quarterback after Nix was declared academically ineligible.

  Pollack says players will heed VanGorder's warnings.

 "When he speaks, we listen, because he knows defense so well,'' Pollack said. "If you want to make plays, all you have to do is listen to the man.''

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