Considering all that, it seems silly to hear senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens say this: "Hopefully, we'll be the No. 1 defense in the land. That's my goal, and I hope that is my teammates' goal. You always want to be that backbone. Just like if I was a baseball player, I would want to bat cleanup."
There was a time not long ago that the Bulldog defense was the team's backbone, but the memory of that has been completely erased by the last two seasons.
Now the Bulldogs have some rebuilding to do. That rebuilding will start, presumably, around Owens, an All-SEC tackle who was lost for the 2008 season in the first quarter of the first game. The loss left linebacker Rennie Curran as the only dependable defender among the front seven.
Owens' presence should have a positive impact on fellow tackle Geno Atkins, who seemed unblockable as a sophomore only to wilt as a junior without Owens by his side. In 2007, Atkins started only seven games but finished with 41 tackles and 14.5 tackles-for-loss. In 2008, those numbers fell to 34 and 7.5 despite starting all 13 games. He also slipped from an Associated Press first-team All-SEC selection to a third-teamer on a lesser ranking.
If Atkins returns to the level he played as a sophomore, defensive tackle will be the strength of the team. With Owens and Atkins starting and Kade Weston and DeAngelo Tyson backing them up, the Bulldogs should have four of the best tackles in the SEC. Line coach Rodney Garner will have to hope that makes up for a lack of proven playmakers at defensive end.
Rising sophomore Justin Houston is the most promising player on the end, but his 2008 numbers (19 tackles, 2.5 sacks) were hardly earth shattering. Senior Rod Battle, who missed spring practice, should provide a solid spot on one end, but he has yet to be a dynamic playmaker consistently. Defensive ends coach Jon Fabris, who has worked plenty of magic before, will have to find a star amongst Houston, Neland Ball, Demarcus Dobbs or Jeremy Longo if the Bulldogs are to return to the days when their defensive end caused quarterbacks around the SEC to worry.
At linebacker, Curran again will be the mainstay. His 115 tackles last year were 39 more than the second-most prolific tackler on the team, safety Reshad Jones, who had 76 stops.
The rest of the linebacking corps shows potential, but has yet to prove anything. Strongside linebacker Darryl Gamble is a returning starter and was the team's third-leading tackler last year with 60 stops. Akeem Dent is a returning starter in the middle, but rising sophomore Marcus Dowtin, who backed up Curran last year but trained in the middle during spring practice, could end up taking that spot.
Senior Marcus Washington returns to the lineup after missing all of 2008, but he's been out so long (including parts of 2007) due to a shoulder injury, it doesn't seem prudent to count on too much from him.
The secondary will suffer from the early departure of cornerback Asher Allen to the NFL – how much depends on the development of rising sophomore Brandon Boykin. All the signs from Boykin were good during his freshman year and in the spring. Prince Miller returns at the other cornerback spot.
Safety is the center of the most interesting questions about Georgia's secondary. Rising junior Reshad Jones briefly considered leaving early for the NFL Draft but chose at the last minute to return. That should be good for both his development and the Bulldogs' defense.
Jones is a dynamic athlete and a hard-hitter. However, he has yet to show the maturity or understanding of the defense necessary to stand in the line of top safeties Georgia has produced like Greg Blue, Sean Jones and Thomas Davis. Blue, in fact, should be the positive example Georgia coaches hold up every day to Jones. Like Jones, he was known for being a big hitter and not much else in the first three years of his career. It wasn't until his senior season that he became an overall weapon for Georgia.
Jones must decide if he wants to be remembered that way or not at all.
At the free safety position, converted cornerback Bryan Evans is the projected starter, but there are enough other options that he shouldn't get too comfortable in that role. Quintin Banks and Bacarri Rambo all could step into that role.