LINCOLN — Georgia senior defensive end Garrison Smith is OK with looking ahead, even if he won't be around for another season of Bulldog football.
Smith sure wishes he could be, though.
“We've got some real good athletes on this team,” Smith said Wednesday. “They were so young this year, but next year they're not rookies anymore. They got a whole year of playing in the SEC. They're going to be ready, man.
“I'm excited about it. I'm excited to look for the future of this defense, because they're going to be one of the top ones in the nation.”
Nebraska will get a glimpse of that Georgia potential when it takes on the Bulldogs in the Gator Bowl on Jan. 1. Smith will be the only senior on the Bulldogs' top two defensive units, and Georgia is likely to start a combined six freshmen and sophomores against the Huskers.
That inexperience may explain why you won't find the Bulldogs near the top of many NCAA or Southeastern Conference statistical categories defensively, but Garrison said it was no longer an excuse as the regular season wound down.
“We got better,” Smith said. “As you saw, as the season went on, guys kept playing and we did what we had to do.”
Georgia was left to rebuild after the NFL draft raided the Bulldogs' defense for seven picks, including first-rounders Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree. Coach Mark Richt said two other Bulldogs stuck with NFL teams as free agents and a third went to the CFL.
That tested the recruiting and player development in a program that entered this season ranked fifth in the Associated Press Top 25.
“I think that we've certainly made improvement as time's gone on,” Richt said on a Wednesday teleconference. “Maybe not as rapidly as we hoped in some areas, but defense sometimes nowadays is making the stop at the moment of truth, when you need it the most, and we've done that at times — and at times we've not.”
Georgia (8-4) heads into the Gator Bowl allowing 29.4 points per game after limiting opponents to 19.6 a year ago, when Nebraska was one of only four teams to manage 24 or more. But the Bulldogs' defensive average, which ranks 11th in the SEC, is a little misleading: The team surrendered four touchdowns on special teams and nine other TD drives that covered 36 yards or fewer.
The Bulldogs are holding teams to fewer rushing yards than last season at 148.5 per game, but giving up 232.8 passing and allowing teams to convert 40.6 percent of their third downs.
Last year, Jones set a school record with 24Ĺ tackles for losses, Ogletree logged 111 tackles and Jones caused seven fumbles.
Richt said Georgia returned some experience at linebacker and across the defensive line. His biggest concern was in the secondary.
“We had to rely a lot more on true freshmen and first-year players in the back end,” Richt said. “And when those guys make a mistake it's big, and it doesn't always tell the story of what's going on with the entire defense.”
The Bulldogs' two-deep for the Gator Bowl includes freshman starters at free safety (Tray Matthews) and one cornerback spot (Shaq Wiggins), and a sophomore at strong safety (Josh Harvey-Clemons). Overall, Georgia has started six true freshmen at times defensively and played a total of 10.
Richt said Smith stepped up to become a “tremendous leader” for the underclassmen and was named a defensive team captain. Juniors Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson came through with the necessary help at inside linebacker.
Wilson transitioned from outside linebacker and became an All-SEC pick after leading the league with 128 total tackles.
“I thought those guys helped us grow and kept it together as well,” Richt said.
Georgia didn't get to ease into the season, opening at Clemson and also playing South Carolina and LSU in September. Coaches made some changes and adjustments along the way, but not that many.
“The bottom line is the greatest teacher is doing it,” Richt said. “The greatest teacher is the experience of playing. If you make a mistake, which everybody does, you learn.
“But a lot of times on the back end you get hurt the worst. You might have 10 guys doing it just right, but you get one guy making a mistake and it could be a 70-yard touchdown. That has happened from time to time, but you just got to forget about it and go back and compete.”
Smith is one of three Bulldogs with six sacks. Outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd have combined for 43 quarterback hurries. Harvey-Clemons has recovered three fumbles.
The plan and scheme are no different from what Nebraska saw Jan. 1 in the Capital One Bowl.
“We're just playing with a lot of young guys — guys fresh out of high school, or their first year playing full time, real time,” Smith said. “It's just a young, inexperienced defense. And I'm so proud of them because these guys fought hard every game and never gave up.”
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>> Georgia coach Mark Richt's teleconference: