ATHENS, Ga. — Georgia's defense may prove to be leaner and quicker this football season, but the most notable difference from a year ago is its youth.
Junior receiver Malcolm Mitchell believes speed will be the bigger variance when the No. 5 Bulldogs open Saturday night at No. 8 Clemson. Mitchell detected a difference during the spring and said this week that it's even more noticeable.
"I caught a little a screen pass the other day in practice -- just a little pop pass to me -- and by the time I got 5 yards up the field, there were linebackers close to me," Mitchell said. "That's something I didn't see last year. You would see it with Alec [Ogletree], of course, but you didn't see three or four coming for you."
The Bulldogs will have an entirely new look defensively Saturday night in Death Valley, with 12 players who made multiple starts last season having moved on. Nine of those players were seniors, and Ogletree, Jarvis Jones and Kwame Geathers elected to forgo a final season of college eligibility.
Junior cornerback Damian Swann is Georgia's lone returning defender who started all 14 games last season. Junior inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera is next with nine starts, end Garrison Smith having made eight and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins adding six.
Coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham were asked if they were concerned this week and responded with different adjectives.
"I'm probably more curious than concerned," Richt said. "It's just going to be interesting to see how quickly these guys can get their feet under them and start playing with some confidence.
"I'm not saying they won't start out that way, but young people tend to be more apt to react to what happens early in the game. If things are going great, they feel great. If things aren't going well, they start feeling bad. That's one of the biggest things that they really have to understand."
Said Grantham: "I'm excited. We've got some guys who have invested a lot into this season and have worked hard for the opportunity to play and showcase their talents. We've just got to go play."
And potentially play a lot of snaps.
Clemson has run 100 or more plays in a game twice in a history that began in 1896, and both of those instances occurred late last season. The Tigers ran 102 plays in a 62-48 win over North Carolina State and 100 in their 25-24 upset of LSU in the Chick-fil-A Bowl.
"We shoot for 82 [plays] and above," Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said. "That's kind of our benchmark. Outside of that, it comes down to the type of success you're having. We definitely want to play fast. That's who we are. That's what we do."
If the Bulldogs are indeed faster than a year ago, then they may be better equipped to handle Clemson's up-tempo spread. They also plan to counter the frenetic pace with more bodies, especially along the defensive front.
"We've been going fast, and the quicker we get them off the field, the less plays they run," Herrera said. "Three-and-out and get rest is always the key. We've got to get our offense back on the field to chew up the clock."
Six members of Georgia's projected starting defense will be making their first career starts -- nose Mike Thornton, end Sterling Bailey, outside linebacker James DeLoach, inside linebacker Ramik Wilson, cornerback Brendan Langley and safety Tray Matthews. Langley and Matthews are true freshmen.
The few veterans of the defense have tired of those doubting this year's group and are ready to prove their worth. They're not alone.
"I'm confident because Coach Grantham has done a great job over the past few years of recruiting guys to fit his scheme," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "We have a lot of great players that no one has seen or knows about, but they're guys who have made plays all camp long and all summer long. I think one of the main reasons they've gotten better is by facing us every day.
"Everyone last year was worried about our offense going up against our defense, and we just got better and better. Our defense pushed us, and it's the same way this year. I'm looking for them to surprise a lot of people."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...