Georgia’s leading returner in interceptions
in 2002: Boss Bailey (2 interceptions in 2001).
In August of 2002, Georgia’s returning leader in sacks was Jonathan Sullivan, with all of 4 sacks. The defensive unit returned 5 lonely starters, Sullivan and David Jacobs at tackle, Tony Gilbert and Boss Bailey at linebacker, and only running-back-turned-corner Bruce Thornton. We all have concerns about the defense in 2009, but in 2002 there were even more questions. Again, quotes are from a Standard Conventional Wisdom piece dated Summer 2002:
STRENGTHS: Defensive Tackle, Linebacker, Punter. CONCERNS: Defensive End, Defensive Back
The injury bug…had a way of reeking [sic] havoc in 2001 up front as a consistent combination of starters could never really be found. Only a few players return with any starting experience except for some of the hogs in on the inside.
Sound familiar? In 2002, most would be comfortable with the prospect of a Sullivan, Jacobs, Ken Veal & Shed Wynn rotation, and it turned out dominant. But I certainly feel just as good if not better about Jeff Owens, Kade Weston, Geno Atkins, the emerging Abry Jones and other depth at the position. I think here it is safe to say: August 2002 vs. August 2009 comparision: 2009, slightly.
The playing time logged at defensive end is short. Replacing some top-notch talent will be quite a task with the departures of [Josh] Mallard and [Charles] Grant. If the coaching staff has any hopes of pressuring opposing quarterbacks, they may have to look to the linebackers. David Pollack looks to play end in 2002 after garnering some All-American attention from the spot on a few long lists.
Sound familiar? Now of course, nobody would’ve dared hope in August 2002 that we’d have a 3-time all-american defensive end in our midst. Could that be the case in 2009? (Answer: No.) At defensive end it’s impossible to overlook the history of Pollock, Will Thompson, Robert Geathers, et al, and equally impossible to overlook last year’s dismal performance at the position. In 2002 DE was a big question, but not as big as this year. August 2002 vs. August 2009 comparison: 2002, comfortably.
The defense starts at linebacker with two solid senior performers, Tony Gilbert and Boss Bailey. Tony was the leading tackler from last year’s ball club and both bring valuable experience to the heart of the group. Look for a great competition this coming August to find out who figures into the depth chart rotations.
Sound Familiar? The comparison at linebacker is strikingly similar, with plenty of depth, talent and experience to go around. In August 2002 whispers were heard about a great JUCO transfer named Odell Thurman. Would you trade Rennie Curran for Tony Gilbert or Boss Bailey? I don’t think I would, but I might take both of them for Curran and Gamble. Neither unit has a clear advantage to me. August 2002 vs. August 2009 comparison: Push.
If pressure can’t be found up front, passing situations could become quite a task as the Bulldogs have a difficult challenge of finding new replacements for three open spots vacated by some key names from the 2001 squad. Both interception leaders are gone. Only one cornerback, Bruce Thornton, dots the roster with any real playing experience. The corners should be fine if Decory Bryant can continue as a solid cover man. This area has to be one of the biggest mysteries facing the relatively new coaching staff. If the Bulldogs are going to have any success at competing with the SEC frontrunners, this unit will need to learn quickly. Claiming the backfield does not possess any talent may not be suitable; there is just no starting experience.
Luckily for the 2002 team, all of Kentrell Curry, Decory Bryant, and Sean Jones emerged as a solid secondary with Thornton. Depth in the secondary is, compared to 2002, much less of a concern this fall. While 2009 has just as many questions as 2002 (can Reshad Jones be a leader? Will Bryan Evans be effective at free safety? Will we have an effective corner rotation?), I argue that the concerns going into 2002 were greater. In 2002 then-secondary coach Willie Martinez built a strong unit from a very talented group. Here’s hoping history repeats itself. August 2002 vs. August 2009 comparison: Push, if not slightly 2009.
Senior punter Jonathan Kilgo was a finalist for the Ray Guy Award and returns to give the defense a little support in the field position department.
Here’s hoping Drew Butler has an outstanding year. But for our purposes, this position is cut and dried. August 2002 vs. August 2009 comparison: 2002, clearly.
Conclusion: there is simply no way that the stars could align on defense in 2009 as they did in 2002, with the emergence of Pollack as a dominant defender, Boss Bailey as another leader, and a suffocating secondary seemingly from nowhere. That being said, the 2009 defense is crammed with senior leadership (in which I include Curran) within each unit. As an overall defense, I don’t think Georgia has the level of concern that it did in 2002 from a talent standpoint, but with the stench of the 2007 meltdowns still in the air, it’s a hard case to make. Further, in 2002 we didn’t realize who we had in Van Gorder, whereas in 2009 we are all too aware of the abilities of our current defensive coordinator. I think Martinez gets more blame than he deserves (and have written as much previously), but like it or not it is a make-or-break year for the defense.
Will 2009 be another 2002? Here’s hoping. The thing about 2002 was that Georgia got the right answers to all of the preseason questions, along with the lucky breaks and miracle plays that it takes to win the SEC. But looking back seven years, the preseason questions, strengths & weaknesses are virtually identical to today.
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