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The Kirby Smart Defense-When Less Is More (Part One)

NCAA Football: Georgia at Clemson Jim Dedmon-USA TODAY Sports

Hi everyone! I’m Sarah G and I am new to the Dawg Sports world- although, first time-long time. I am known fortunately or unfortunately by my presence as the resident tweeter of the life of an exceedingly emotionally unstable, superstitious, Dawg fan. I’m a double dawg who graduated from Georgia twice, unfortunately the second time with a law degree. If that explanation somehow didn’t scare you off, you can find me there talking Bulldog football at all hours -probably also discussing my belief in the goodness of waffles, why Atlanta sports have ruined my life, as well as frank conversations about the importance of mental health-the latter being often related to the former.

I spend a lot of my time thinking about blocking and linemen. Here to join in the community talking anything and everything CFB, but especially why every single one of our rivals is embarrassing, worthless, and worthy of our disdain. Oh and also, the Dawgs. Always and forever, above all else- those Damn Good Dawgs. Don’t be a stranger and I hope you enjoy!

As everyone in the college football world knows, the Dawgs finished their BIG game of the *whispers to make sure no is looking* regular season last Saturday. Clemson/UGA was the marquee matchup of not only the opening weekend, but perhaps the entire regular season. And it was by all accounts, a game of largess. Full stands, very large vats of mayo, the largest collection of four and five stars that North Carolina will see until basketball season, and the weight of the entire life support plug to the relevancy of the ACC as a conference as a whole. [ ALL RIGHTS RESERVED TO ***THE ALLIANCE***].

It was, in short, a big game and even bigger win for the Dawgs to start this year with. It was downright wonderful. The most impressive and dominating performance of course, was the UGA defense which allowed just two rushing yards (LOL), only 180 yards of total offense, and more pressures on a QB than an SEC starter trying to decide which chicken based fast-food restaurant to endorse.

It was a truly stunning and unbelievable championship performance from the defense. (yes I know the offense played too, but this is my post, people, I don’t have to focus on the things I don’t want to). Still, as elite and historic as it was-it was not completely shocking. Everyone with a pulse knows that the Dawgs defense is one now regularly considered elite. This has been the case since a favorite former son returned home. However, Saturday showed that this defense may show us a season much above business as usual- even for the high standard of a Kirby-lead defense. Still, even if what we witnessed last Saturday was perhaps the beginning historic level performance- this era of Georgia Bulldogs strangling the life out of an offense and leaving them for 2-rushing-yards-dead is not a completely unique Monday headline for the fall.

So, as I settled in with my own pure Duke Mayo induced glee- it occurred to me that this defense was going to be one that would probably be talked about extensively and nationally. And while there will be many great discussions from every podcast you’ve never (but should) listened to about just *how* good this defense is, really, I think the better conversation is-just exactly why is this defense so damn good. Because at this point, I think we can all agree it will ruin many an offensive coordinator’s life, but what is it that makes it so lethal?

Because when the Dawgs loaded the bus on Saturday night after such a massive win on an even bigger stage-I think the key to success of this team was not in bigger or more. That may be part of the reason the Dawgs are performing on such a high level is not in addition-but subtraction. (And I don’t mean in an ending score that is these days only reserved for middle school girl basketball games.) But instead, that maybe when it comes to dominating on the big stage Kirby and crew are showing the country that in at least some ways less is, indeed, more.

This may seem a counterintuitive way to paint the theme of our defensive success and growth. If anything, it has been the mammoth additions to our team that have made us a defensive nightmare. Our recruited talent is, in a word, terrifying for other teams. Or as Mike Golic Jr. so beautifully stated, pure dementors.

Recruiting is the undeniable, necessary bedrock of its success. Georgia’s defensive players are unrivaled in their talent. They have and will continue to find NFL jobs for years to come. You don’t see the performance you saw on Saturday without Jordan Davis, Nolan Smith, or Nakobe Dean-type players.

But this was Clemson. National Title Contendin’ Clemson. Top recruitin’ Clemson. Rock Rubbin’, Hill runnin’, NIL hatin’ Clemson. They are not really that much of a mismatch when it comes to on-field talent. Or at least, certainly not enough of a mismatch that it would translate to being the sole cause of the offensive slaughter that happened to them on Saturday. Sure, UGA is stacked like a brick house and Clemson was missing Trevor Lawrence, but this is not an offense of true freshmen or charity case walk-ons like Clemson’s message board warriors are probably now implying. Sorry TigerNet, but this-actually wasn’t the starting offense for the Dabo Swinney Rec League for Troubled Youths- Clemson has the fourth most talent rich team in the country. Nor did Clemson’s offensive success begin four years ago. Until last Saturday, Clemson hadn’t failed to score in the first half-since 2010. In 2010, Trevor Lawrence was in a fifth grade classroom in Cartersville, Georgia.

Plus, plenty of teams have been and will recruit around UGA’s Kirby era level-and yet they haven’t been able to produce the same level of defensive product in recent years.*cough* Bama *cough*. In fact, the 2017 UGA defense was made of Richt era recruited players. But it was by all accounts much better than a Richt-era defensive production. Yes surely, recruiting is a huge, required foundation of the recipe, but we see that clearly isn’t the whole story.

So, if UGA’s defensive success is not solely the guys we get to put on the field what is it?

​Ultimately, after watching and analyzing our defense grow and transform over the past six years I have decided this defense takes about this long to fully establish, is not just about who runs out of the tunnel and is one that other programs may not have to the luxury to demand. And the key to it is as simple as it is devastating:

​Georgia’s defensive superiority hinges on demanding perfect, disciplined execution of fundamental skills and elite decision making. That’s it-that’s truly the difference.

​Of course, there is a much more complicated framework and intricoes of this defense and why it works so well that I am going to breakdown in a two-part series. But boiled down in simplest terms, the framework rests on the requirement that on their own, players are expected to perform more, recognize more, and adjust more, with less of a safety net than many other programs. Do more with less. Execute perfectly.

All things covered, at all times, in all situations. We do not sell out on a pass versus a run or run versus pass. We aren’t often tricked or surprised. We do not let the offense force us to defend in formations we do not want to. We get seven sacks and countless pressures on a Clemson quarterback but refuse to give more than three guys to the rush. In short, when running correctly, this defense is not set up to allow for concessions. It is devastatingly stingy. And the only way to have a defense actually work like that is to have each player coached fundamentally from the ground up to execute their assignments to a skill and decision-making level that I don’t believe, in my admitted bias, is currently seen much in college football on the defensive side of the ball.

First off-when I say perfect execution, I want to be clear that although Kirby can be tough. I don’t mean the Brian Kelly kind. YIKES. I also understand that this answer seems like the unflashy coach-speak speech that most people expect from a mid-summer, canned coach presser- not a first-time post from a click thirsty over-tweeter/accidental blogger.

So, although I am sorry to disappoint on the hot take from there, it is important to understand that although Kirby is a fantastic defensive coach he doesn’t really make such an impossible defense by some superior gameday plan or massive playbook or slick maneuvers. The reason that Georgia’s defense is so problematic is that there isn’t an easy answer to a defense not made on shortcuts. Instead, Kirby Smart has built an impossible defense by building impossible defenders.

How do you build impossible defenders? You build players who can do more with “less”. Players who are asked to do more. Build players who, through advanced execution, skill, and decision making, pull off more with somehow “less” at their disposal than other teams would give them.

In this part of one of a two-part series, I am going to explain how the defensive play structure as a whole demonstrates this UGA defensive mentality. And then in part two I’ll explain which specific defensive schemes and positions require higher execution of fundamentals to do more with “less”. (Okay yes you saw through me, it’s gonna be about our defensive line and how those magic SOBs stop every single run Imodium-style even though Kirby stingily gives em one less guy in the box to help defend it. Like I said- I’m a trenches gal. I like big butts and I cannot lie folks. Stay tuned).

Keep It Smartly Simple Stupid

One significant way that Kirby’s “less is more” philosophy shows up is in his much smaller defensive playbook. Kirby doesn’t solve the question of a superior offense by throwing the schematic kitchen sink at it. In fact, this is perhaps the biggest way that Kirby has diverged from his mentor, young and up and coming coach Nicholas Lou Saban Jr.

This marked philosophical divergence has even been noted and utilized by other coaches. And according to an anonymous coaches survey about their view of SEC’s programs conducted this summer by Athlon Sports, which I thought was a great read, one coach specifically notes about Georgia:

“Defensively they don’t throw as much at you as Alabama. You can see Kirby’s [Smart] hand in the defense that way. I think a Georgia defense is more about making decisions and executing than throwing a lot of scheme at you, and they make great decisions.”

​At first glance, that may sound like the Dawgs are just making it easier on offensive coordinators. Are we out there giving a watered down defense? What gives? Saban makes his defenses handle an array of every type of blitz, front, or coverage stored within the vast mental rolodex of his coaching experience. Also, Saban has almost two completely different playbooks based on whether he is running his base personnel (no nickel player) or his nickel package. But Kirby runs the same plays regardless of which of those personnel groupings he puts on the field. So isn’t Saban’s way much more impressive? Better? Isn’t a defense that becomes impossible one that has more schematic weapons at its disposal? More options to keep an offense guessing? Doesn’t it make sense that you can do more with......more?

​At first glance I’d say yes probably, but in actuality it is apparent how much more lethal Kirby’s style of defense can be when executed to the level we saw on Saturday. Unlike Saban, Kirby’s defense was made, molded, and forged in the era of spread offenses. A defense that needs time to look to the sideline every snap to get the play is a defense that risks mistakes and half-measures against a modern, hurry up offense. So, what to do when the offense isn’t making it easy for you to tell your players how to set up? Well, you just make a defense that asks the players to set up on their own. Make impossible defenders who do more with “less”. That starts with decision making.

This season, if you haven’t already, pay attention to how many times our players look to the sideline for an individual call. It is considerably less than many defenses, certainly less than Lord Saban’s. Kirby and Co. give our guys the package, but then ask them to adjust and decide from that framework based on what they see out of an offense. We evaluate and adjust on almost every play, not because we weren’t set, but because our players know immediately how they need to address the offense they are being shown and what their responsibility is. With one word to the field Dan Lanning sets our guys up for four or five possible offensive scenarios that can be born out of that single word, the players are just the ones that adjust, and execute, to the correct scenario. In that sense, we really don’t have fewer plays than a Saban-type defense, but we certainly have telegraphing and delayed processing.

In a great coaches clinic in 2019, which my good friend and DawgSports guru DawgoutWest wrote up, Lanning went into this deliberate effort by Kirby’s staff to trim down defense plays in response to the modern offensive era. The key was this: lessen the level of what the players were half-way retaining, and also significantly streamline how defense is taught and telegraphed. Tell them what to look for. Maintain clearer, streamlined defensive assignments. We don’t have the time or the luxury to start from square one each play. They have to adjust and analyze on the fly.

But how does this stream-lined approach translate into the defensive success we are seeing now? Well, not only do you not need a fake an injury in an Oscar-worthy Notre Dame fake eye-gouge performance to slow the game down, but also- more importantly- offensive coordinators cannot game plan to confuse you the way they can with a stack of complicated defensive schemes. When you have a Saban-style defense with a million plays and variations of plays that each defender must remember/know their assignment for any additional wrinkles that an offense can throw in that equation is going to increase the likelihood that you get burned tenfold. And in modern spread offenses, there are a lot more options for wrinkles. When a defender is coached to just defend based on what he is given on the sideline, rather than make his own decisions and adjust from what he sees on the field, all an offensive coordinator has to do is to make that defender second guess himself however briefly with an unexpected change. And they’ve won the play even before the snap.

​This weakness in a sideline driven, play-heavy defense has recently been exploited more and more by Alabama’s opponents as they adapt to the changing offensive times. And I believe it is at least part of the reason we have seen the dominant Alabama defense of the past become less so. Yes, defenses across the board give up more points in this modern offensive era- UGA is no stranger to this. But still, it is undeniable that Kirby has managed to face similar opponents and produce better defensive results. I think this difference cannot be ignored, and in fact, neither do Saban and Smart’s peers.

In that same Athlon article, the coaches talking about how to attack Alabama all noted that their best shot was to attack it’s defensive weaknesses, and that weakness hinged on defensive decision making:

“The way to give them trouble was to make them think a lot. Formations to the boundary, then motions, maybe trading off the tight end, making them account for matchups in real-time and get them out of tendencies. Try to create gaps.”

Another echoes the same sentiment that Alabama’s defensive weakness is not exploiting the physical skill of its players, but to attack them mentally with decisions they aren’t ready to make. This coach adds:

“When you’ve seen Alabama struggle in recent years, it’s because you’re making really talented players outthink their assignments. It’s really the only real way to beat them, unless you’re a Clemson, because you can’t win one-on-one matchups. All that being said, they’re still the best program in college football.”

The contrast from these SEC coaches evaluation of the two programs is interesting. Alabama is rightfully seen as the absolute Death Star it continues (for us unfortunately) to be, but these coaches recognize what Kirby asks of his players in terms of decision making. They also see that his players are doing it quite well. And that this Kirby strength has now become a rare Saban weakness. Kirby has seemingly now somewhat lapped his teacher in this regard. These coaches know that you can’t exploit a physically superior player as easily who has less defensive assignment scheme to try to sort through on the fly but has more understanding of what you’re doing. With the right players in a scheme like that, you build impossible defenders, and there is no great way to shortcut a defense built this way.

In sum, Kirby builds extremely Smart and streamlined defenses that are built on superior coached, talented players. (I’m sorry I truly couldn’t resist the low hanging pun fruit). They read your team’s alignment. They adjust. They understand what you are doing. Run a motion play -they aren’t thrown off on their role. Tempted to try a flea flicker? Watch past game tape and see how that goes. You are not going to easily trick or confuse a UGA defense. If you beat them, you beat them, but it’s not that often because a guy was wide open from a misread play, or you get the line to bite and open the wrong way on a run. They stay with you, they read the coverage, understand their assignment, know where you are going, and often can get there first. In which case- good freakin’ luck.

But this type of defense also will not mask a defensive player’s mistakes or confusion. A true freshman is not going to be able to be told each time “stand here, run here, then stop.” They have to evaluate. They have to make good, smart decisions. And because of how Kirby often sets up his coverage to work against a spread offense and the RPO, as I will explain more next time, they often have fewer places to hide. It is a level of defense that is extraordinarily demanding. And as we will see with the way he coaches fundamentals-Kirby doesn’t set his players up to fail with these demands- quite the opposite- but this defense certainly doesn’t set them up to succeed by just getting by. Kirby asks a tremendous amount from his defensive players. But he knows the reward. Execute consistently at a perfect level. Don’t concede. Become impossible.

​Because, when they fully succeed, as we saw this past Saturday, and I think we will continue to see, they succeed on such a level that it could be nearly impossible to battle for any sustained offensive success. They succeed on a death grip, dementor, impossible level. They succeed much more, with less. In fact, we may even look back on this year and see that this type of historic defense of “less” ends up giving us the type of more we’ve all been waiting for a while…..

I’ll be back with Part Two later.

Go Dawgs!