"We had chances to make plays last year but they just weren't made," linebacker Darryl Gamble said. "So it's really about taking advantage of opportunities, and I don't think we did good with that last year. We would be in the right places, but we've got to execute on what's there."
In the months that followed one of the most disappointing defensive seasons in recent memory for the Bulldogs, there was plenty to work on. But perhaps no statistic loomed as large as turnovers – just 16 in total last season.
The mark tied for the worst in the conference, less than half the amount created by conference champion Florida. Only seven teams in the country had fewer takeaways than the Bulldogs. Reshad Jones was the only defensive back for Georgia to record an interception all season, and perhaps most embarrassingly for the secondary, defensive end Demarcus Dobbs' two picks tied him for the second best tally on the team.
There were high points – such as the interception Dobbs made to clinch a win over Kentucky or the fumble forced by Rennie Curran to secure a win over South Carolina or the two picks Gamble made in a win over LSU.
But there were too many other chances at momentum-changing plays that slipped by. There were the silly penalties that negated some crucial takeaways. There were moments when poor communication between two defenders allowed a potential interception to fall harmlessly to the ground. And there were moments – far too many of them – when the ball simply slipped through the hands of the would-be defender.
"We did talk to the guys about making sure they were spending time catching the football all summer long," head coach Mark Richt said. "I don't know if they did as much as we hoped they were but they sure are catching the ball well."
Cornerback Brandon Boykin said the Bulldogs took the problems to heart, and the defensive backs took time out of each day's workouts to spend catching passes with the wide receivers. The defensive ends – a group hobbled by injuries – took responsibility for creating more chances at turnovers by creating confusion at the line of scrimmage. The coaches have emphasized the significance of maintaining assignments, and Richt said a number of interceptions during practice have come explicitly because quarterbacks were forced to check down to their second and third options.
Each day after practice, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez tracks the number of balls deflected, passes broken up and turnovers created. On one occasion, he even had a shirt made recognizing the day's top performer.
"If you want to be competitive in this league, you need to be creating turnovers and getting sacks," defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. "You need those momentum-changing type of plays. So we implemented different circuits where we really focused on trying to create more turnovers."
Throughout the defense, everyone is talking turnovers, and the results have been impressive so far.
Georgia's defense has tormented the team's young quarterbacks throughout fall practice, picking off passes regularly, creating pressure and finishing plays with big returns. In the first week of practice alone, Richt counted 75 pass breakups by the defense.
It has been a welcome change of pace.
"That's one thing we went into the summer trying to emphasize was getting turnovers and scoring on defense," Gamble said. "I think we've been trying a lot harder and breaking a lot more plays. We had opportunities last year, we just didn't make them. Now we've got a better idea of what to do, and we've been making quite a few turnovers."