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Football 101: Defensive Personnel Groups

Dayne Young and Brent Rollins collaborate to discover the nuances of the Georgia Bulldogs and college football.

*All grades and other data via www.PFF.com*

This is part of a football 101 series where we lay out explanations and the merits of different football concepts.

Brent: Who's on the field and why? We've already attacked this question from the offensive perspective, and now we turn to the defense. While we're not going to get into run fits/one or two gap responsibility or describe the nature of all the different coverages the Bulldogs run, we're going to describe the groupings used and the type of player Smart wants for the various positions.

Dayne: You've probably noticed that Kirby Smart tends to avoid giving firm answers when reporters ask about the defensive schemes. Part of that is because the Bulldogs play multiple defenses and ask defenders to be versatile. There is no quick and simple explanation of Georgia's defensive tendencies because it all adjusts based on what the opposing offense is showing.

Old Base

Georgia clogs the interior on an inside run.
Georgia clogs the interior on an inside run.

Dayne: The problem with having five players prowl the line of scrimmage is that it allows for running plays to bounce outside, as defenders are clogged inside. Georgia is making a shift away from leaning so heavily on bigger outside linebackers/defensive ends, and relying on fast and tall defenders who can line up at a variety of spots.

Brent: This is the old school, base 3-4 defense: nose tackle occupying the center, two 275-plus pound defensive ends, two outside linebackers (Nolan Smith and Walter Grant on this play) along the line of scrimmage, and two inside linebackers (Monty Rice and Quay Walker here). The defense is then rounded out by the two corners and two safeties in the secondary, with Richard LeCounte being the eighth defender in the box on this play. Given the evolution of offenses, and particularly the rise of 11 personnel (remember? One RB, one TE, three WRs), it is rare to see the Bulldogs in their "base" 3-4. In fact, in 2019, only 12.5 percent of plays were played from this base 3-4 personnel.

New Base

The Bulldogs are fast enough to make up ground quickly.
The Bulldogs are fast enough to make up ground quickly.

Dayne: Georgia's base has adjusted over the years to better cover every quadrant of the field. The star position has become vital to Georgia to increase the athleticism on the field.

Brent: While often not the true star of the defense, the Star position is a part of Georgia's true base defense. Mark Webb above is the "star," or fifth defensive/nickel cornerback. Especially on early downs, this gives rise to the typical alignment you see from a Bulldog defense. The 4-2-5 look with three true defensive linemen, mainly functioning as run stoppers and an edge defender, or "jack," (Azeez Ojulari above) on the line of scrimmage. Then, two linebackers in the middle, one of which is typically bigger, and the force player against the run on the strong side (e.g., Monty Rice), and another on the weak side that is faster and better in coverage (e.g. Tae Crowder). The star then plays in the slot, two outside corners and the two safeties, one of whom typically plays on the wide side of the field (J.R. Reed) and the other typically on the short side of the field (LeCounte). Georgia had this 4-2-5 alignment on 62 percent of its defensive plays last season.

Mark Webb gets the blocker off balance.
Mark Webb gets the blocker off balance.

Dayne: It takes a unique player to thrive at the star position. In the previous play, you saw Mark Webb (No. 23) charged with breaking through a wide receiver block. Here it's Webb vs. a bigger tight end. The star player must be prepared to line up in many different locations and be willing to match up on any skill player.

Brent: During his time at Alabama, 6'1", 205-pound Minkah Fitzpatrick was, and still is, the absolute prototype for the star position. A player in the 6'0" to 6'2" range who weighs at or near 200 pounds with enough speed to cover speedy slot receivers, while also having enough height/size to be a force player in the run game is what they want—as you see above with Webb.

For the most part, both Mark Webb and Divaad Wilson bring the necessary size/speed combination Smart is looking for at this position. In known passing situations, it will be interesting to see this fall, whether neither Webb or Wilson is on the field, with the Bulldogs going with Eric Stokes, Tyson Campbell, and DJ Daniel (and possibly even Kelee Ringo) in an effort to get their best coverage players on the field.

D.J. Daniel strings out the play.
D.J. Daniel strings out the play.

Dayne: Quick recognition from the safeties is vital for Georgia's defense to thrive. Look at how J. R. Reed (No. 20) moved to the correct spot before the running back left the backfield. By adding a defender so soon, stress is taken away from the cornerback, who is suddenly being blocked by a fullback.

Brent: Versatility and being able to be a force player in the run game at the safety position is vital. While J.R. Reed's veteran presence and ability will be missed, the uber-talented Lewis Cine looks ready to step right in based on what we saw from him in his 201 snaps in 2019 (73.7 overall grade).

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