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Will the Georgia Bulldogs' Secondary be the Bright Spot in Todd Grantham's New 3-4 Defense?

You all know that I err on the side of pessimism automatically, so it goes without saying that I share Doug Gillett’s concerns about the front seven in the Georgia Bulldogs’ new 3-4 scheme. What about the secondary, though?

Granted, the defensive backfield differs little between a 4-3 and a 3-4, so much so that some commentators have felt free to ignore the secondary altogether when discussing the transition between schemes. However, there are subtle distinctions, as spelled out by Coug Center:

In the secondary, the skill set required doesn't differ a ton. A strong safety that's bigger and able to blitz or stuff the run is an added bonus in a 3-4. The strong safety should be versatile enough to line up in the box in rushing situations, or cover the pass when needed.

For what it’s worth, the Georgia safety rotation includes Bacarri Rambo splitting time between free and strong safety, with Nick Williams lining up at strong safety whenever Rambo is manning the free safety spot. Rambo is listed at 6’0" and 211 lbs., whereas Williams stands at 6’2" and tips the scales at 220 lbs.

While the rest of us are fretting over the defensive linemen and linebackers, Mark Richt is praising the efforts of his defensive backs:

Richt described it as some secondary guys with a linebacker’s mentality.

"I like the secondary. I like what I’m seeing," Richt said. "I think we have some quality depth. I think we have some quality starters. And we’re still not sure who’s gonna start there."

As noted by Howie Long and John Czarnecki in their Football for Dummies---hey, if I’m going to be outed for owning it, I might as well get some use out of it!---one of the virtues of the 3-4 defense is its flexibility, as the inclusion of an extra linebacker creates options both for dropping additional defenders into pass coverage or sending more players to rush the quarterback. The manner in which this plays out on the field already is evident in the NFL, where the Buffalo Bills are running the 3-4 with favorable early returns:

The openness of the 3-4 defense was evident in live drills in which the defensive secondary, notably safety Donte Whitner, was free to make plays along the line of scrimmage and deeper in the secondary.

On the first play of live drills, quarterback Trent Edwards rolled out to his right and found tight end Jonathan Stupar for a short gain.

A group of players led by Whitner met Stupar with a thud to force a fumble that elicited one of the loudest cheers from the crowd.

That brings us to Scott Lakatos, formerly with the Connecticut Huskies and currently coaching the Bulldog defensive backs. When Coach Lakatos was hired, a UConn blogger had this to say:

I’ve always thought UConn’s defensive backs have been good in run support, even though all of them are short and undersized. The Huskies have been 62th, 17th and 45th in run defense the past three seasons, and the DBs are a big part of that. . . .

Since Lakatos arrived in 2004, UConn defensive backs have accumulated at least six interceptions every season. And over the past three seasons, the secondary alone has totaled a combined 37, with 13 in both 2007 and 2008.

A lot of this, I believe, has to do, again, with the coaching staff’s ability to basically transform these unheralded recruits into impact players for a BCS conference (well, sort of). And both Lakatos has been a big part in that. Since 2004, at least one player in the defensive backfield has picked off at least four passes, and not a single one was rated higher than a three-star prospect.

Imagine what Coach Lakatos can do with the higher-caliber athletes he has at his disposal in the Classic City. While it remains as true as ever that great defenses are built up the middle, and that the interior of the Georgia D is an experiment that involves finding the best fits for a new scheme, our fretting over the front seven should be tempered by the knowledge that there will be four more players on the field behind them.

Don’t get me wrong, though; you should still fret like crazy over the front seven. There may be some bright spots in the back four, though, and even a few deficiencies up front may be overcome by a backfield that gets the damn ball.

Go ‘Dawgs!