Been Through the Fire

ATHENS – By the time Georgia wrapped up its regular season with one of its most embarrassing defensive performances in decades, linebacker Rennie Curran wasn't perplexed by what had transpired.

The truth was, he knew all along. For all the talent on Georgia's defense, the unit had never played together. There was a missing ingredient, and all the morale-boosting speeches Curran could muster wouldn't change that.

Things are different this season, Curran insists. Georgia's defense has been through the fire, and this time they're prepared for what lies ahead.

"You can look to your left, look to your right and you can trust the guy next to you, knowing that he's been here through the good and the bad experiences and can get the job done. We don't have any doubt at all about each other."

There have been numerous improvements in terms of preparation and conditioning, a renewed dedication to fundamentals and a chip-on-their-shoulder approach to the season. But the biggest difference for Georgia's defense this season is simply experience.

Last season, safety CJ Byrd was the only senior to start all 13 games for the Bulldogs on defense. Corvey Irvin was the only other senior to earn regular playing time without succumbing to injuries, and he had just transferred from junior college a year earlier. When adversity hit, there were few Bulldogs who knew how to overcome it.

That has all changed in 2009. Ten of the 11 players expected to start Georgia's opener against Oklahoma State in September are juniors or seniors, and only cornerback Brandon Boykin lacks significant game-day experience.

"We have more leaders on the team, on the defense," said senior Jeff Owens, who missed all of last season after tearing his ACL during the Bulldogs' first game. "All great football teams have great leaders, and that's going to be what defines our season."

From the time players returned to campus following Georgia's Capital One Bowl victory in January, the leadership on the defensive side of the ball has been evident.

There was more accountability and organization during offseason workouts. After an injury-ravaged season in 2008, conditioning was at the forefront of the defense's preparation for this year. When the freshmen arrived at the beginning of the summer, there was no dichotomy between upperclassmen and newcomers. The teaching began immediately.

"I definitely see an improvement in that area," defensive line coach Rodney Garner said. "Everybody around would say the leadership is like night and day from a year ago."

It needed to be.

In 2008, Georgia had one of its worst defensive seasons in years. Five times the Bulldogs allowed 38 or more points, including disastrous performances in the team's losses to Alabama, Florida and Georgia Tech.

Turnovers slipped through the hands of cornerbacks. Tackling lacked the fundamentals and opponents like the Yellow Jackets exploited the weakness to the tune of more than 400 yards rushing. The defensive line failed to pressure opposing quarterbacks and Georgia fell from first in the SEC in sacks in 2007 to 10th in the conference last year. Worst of all, there was no one on the defense to quell the chaos.

"Last year, we had some young guys, and they were going into the learning phase," defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. "Now, people are older, more mature, and you can see it throughout the whole defense."

It's not that there weren't players who wanted to lead last year. Curran emerged as the spokesman of the defense, but he was just a sophomore. Irvin had a strong season as well, but the role of leader was still new to him. Many of the other seniors weren't regular contributors, and many of the younger players didn't feel comfortable speaking out. The players most in need of leadership weren't sure whom to turn to.

"If you don't have veterans out there, nobody wants to listen to nobody," defensive tackle Kade Weston said. "This year, we've got guys who step up. If one of us feels like we're letting each other down or not doing what we're supposed to do, someone will have that confidence and won't have any problems saying that they need to step it up. Guys aren't scared to talk."

Freshman defensive tackle Abry Jones noticed it from the first day he arrived on campus. Owens pulled him aside with tips on succeeding as a freshman, and the advice hasn't stopped coming since.

"The seniors last year didn't go off on such a good note, losing to Georgia Tech and all, so I think they took it upon themselves to put the team on their shoulders to lead us," Jones said.

As important as the words Owens has passed along are the credentials he and fellow starting tackle Geno Atkins bring to the table. Both are considered NFL material, and Atkins is a likely first-round selection in next year's draft. It's the type of resume Jones said is hard to ignore.

"You just watch them during practice and watch what they do," Jones said. "It's a great way to step your game up and learn little things before they leave."

Of course, the strong leadership is a nice story in August. But thinking back to where his team was a year ago, Garner didn't think the leadership was poor back then either.

The truth is, he said, it's impossible to tell how a team will react until they're put to the test.

"The true test will be determined when we face adversity," Garner said. "How is that leadership going to come and surface then? Is it still going to be that positive leadership, the guys who want to get out front and set the example?"

Georgia's defense will face adversity quickly in 2009. The Bulldogs open the season on the road against Oklahoma State, one of the most prolific offensive attacks in the nation.

The Cowboys certainly have Curran's attention, but he's pretty sure his defense proved something before it ever took the field for practice this fall.

A year ago, Georgia's off-field issues created nearly as many headlines as its preseason potential. Players were in trouble far too often, and arrests, suspensions and dismissals followed.

So this season, the first test of Georgia's leadership was keeping the team out of the spotlight between spring practice and the start of fall drills. The results were encouraging. Two players landed suspensions, but neither found trouble with the law. No arrests occurred, and from April through August, Georgia was a model program.

It was no easy task, but it's a test Curran said the team passed with flying colors.

"It's a real proud feeling to know where we came from last year and how much that affected our season and how we all responded," Curran said. "The leadership helped people realize why we came here – and that was to go to school, play football and hopefully make a living for yourself one day. We just realized that and refocused and come in day in and day out and handle whatever task we were faced with."

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