Washington knows the history and tradition of Georgia's defense as well as anyone, and he knows that last season did nothing to add to that legacy. Even from the sideline, Washington wanted desperately to win, and he knows his defense was a big reason the Bulldogs dropped three games in 2008. As a fifth-year senior, Washington knows all the subtleties of playing defense in the SEC, and he knows last year the Bulldogs were sorely lacking in fundamentals.
A lot did go wrong last season, and the Bulldogs defenders have plenty to prove in 2009. But while they hope to put the sting of last year's failures behind them, it's the memories of what could have been that provide the motivation for a far different mind-set this time around.
"Last year was kind of a letdown, and I felt as if we let Georgia down because we did not perform the way a Georgia defense traditionally plays," Washington said. "You go back and you look at the defensive aspect of the games, and maybe if we did things a little differently, things would have turned out different. We've got to go in and refocus. We've got to make some stops. We've got to not give up big plays."
In terms of results, Georgia's defense hopes to make some major changes.
The Bulldogs lost three games last season, and the defense allowed more than 40 points in each. The unit allowed 38 points in two other victories as well, and fell well short of its goals for stopping the run, sacking the quarterback and creating turnovers all season.
Those were the results, but what linebacker Rennie Curran is concerned with are the causes, and the way he sees it, it will only take some small changes in preparation and practice to create major improvements on game day.
"We started off well in the season, but we lost our focus," Curran said. "Guys got hurt, but things like that happen. Now this season that we have everybody back, we need to just focus on the basics – running to the ball, executing on every play, not having mental breakdowns or physical breakdowns. We just have to focus on being as disciplined as possible."
Of course, that's not a far different sentiment from the one Curran shared throughout the season a year ago.
After the devastating first half against Alabama or the blowout loss to Florida or the infuriating performance against Kentucky, Georgia's defenders all said the same thing. They needed to get back to basics. They needed to concentrate on fundamentals. They needed to be disciplined.
And yet, the regular season ended with one of the most embarrassing defensive performances in recent memory – a 45-42 defeat to rival Georgia Tech in which the Bulldogs allowed 409 yards rushing, including two touchdown runs of more than 60 yards. It was a low point, but the truth of their situation seemed finally to sink in.
During bowl practice, the defense really did play with more energy. The commitment to discipline seemed legitimate, and the result was a dominant 24-12 win over Michigan State.
It was a performance strong enough to engender some hope among a wary fan base, but not enough to erase all the doubt.
"If I was looking from the outside in, I would say (there are questions) and we realize that as a group," defensive end Rod Battle said. "We're just trying to refocus as a group this offseason and try to make up some of the lost practices that we've all had."
The practices have been more intense, and head coach Mark Richt has assured the fans that his team won't shy away from contact – a problem that developed last season amid a myriad of injuries.
But more important than what happens on the practice field, said fifth-year senior Jeff Owens, is what happens off of it. The two biggest improvements the Georgia defense needs to make involve attitude and accountability.
"The main thing that has to change is our attitude, being a dominant defense," Owens said. "And if we want to dominate the SEC and dominate the nation, we're going to have to dominate up front, starting with the inside guys. So we're putting it on our shoulders to run this defense."
Cornerback Brandon Boykin was a freshman last season, and he saw only limited action as a nickelback.
Like Washington, his limited role did little to diminish the pain of seeing his defense falter time and time again. It's a pain that has driven the entire team during the offseason, pushing them to work harder and serving as a reminder of why every detail matters.
"I expect that Junkyard Dawg mentality that Georgia used to have back in the day," Boykin said. "You can just tell the intensity in our workouts. We're not taking anything for granted this year. You can see the games where we gave up big plays against Florida and Georgia Tech – we're just trying to focus on not giving up those plays this year. We're doing everything this summer so when we come in the fall we don't run into a wall. I feel like as long as we stay hungry for the ball, we'll be fine in the fall."