There's no one on the Georgia roster you can count on for an honest assessment of the team better than Rennie Curran. He never calls out individual players -- unless he's calling out himself -- but he's always willing to say what he thinks is holding his unit back.
So when we were talking Tuesday, I put the basic question to him. What's keeping this defense from being successful?
His answer sounded familiar, and after spending about three minutes combing through some quotes from last season, it's clear why.
Rennie Curran following the loss to Florida last year:
"It’s preparation because the better prepared you are, the less likely you are to have things like that happen, miscommunications or not being in the right place at the right time, not being aligned and ready when the ball is snapped, and those are the things that we just have to work on in practice and be more efficient at. Everybody has to be on the same page, and when you’ve got nine guys all doing it, and two guys not doing it the right way, that will mess up your whole entire defense.”
Rennie Curran during the offseason:
“You just have to be persistent and hope everybody can get on the same page, but I have no worries about that this year. I feel like we’ve got a great group of guys that want to do things right and want to buy into the program, and that’s going to translate into good things.”
Rennie Curran following the loss to Tennessee last week:
"This season has been a huge emotional rollercoaster, having good week, bad week, guys not playing on the same page. But we’ve got to go into this week using those bad experiences to turn it into something positive for this team that can get us back on track and build some momentum for the rest of the season.”
Nearly a year apart, the song remains essentially the same, and the bottom line is that phrase: "Not Playing on the Same Page."
I thought about doing a detailed bit of writing about this, but after posing the question to a number of Georgia's key defensive players and coaches, I think they do a much better job of telling the story.
Despite what we heard during the offseason of all the effort and focus, some of that seems to have waned since this season began. Curran wants to remind people.
“We’ve got a lot going on as college students, but at the same time, we worked so hard during the offseason and we can’t just let that go for nothing," he said. "We’ve got to see some results. We’ve got to continue to fight hard."
So what will that take?
According to defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, it's a matter of persistence.
"It's a work in progress," Martinez said. "You keep talking about those things and being disciplined. You have some guys that have some inexperience and that's going to happen. You just have to work through it, continue to practice it and stress it to where you can be more consistent."
According to safety Bryan Evans, it's a matter of maturity.
“We’ve been trying to do that all season, but times like this, you can only get better by looking at film more," Evans said. "We try to get the younger players to watch film with us more, but a player is only going to do as much as they can do with the class schedule and stuff like that. But that comes with maturity. If you’re mature, you’re going to go in and watch film. If you’re not mature, you’re just going to do what you have to do and be done with it.”
According to defensive tackle Jeff Owens, it's a matter of emotion.
"You've got to give it your all," Owens said. "We know it's a grind. We know it's tough. If it wasn't tough, everybody in the world would be doing it. But you have to go out and give it your all, and you've got to have fun. That's what we have to get back is guys having fun, making plays and being excited."
According to cornerback Brandon Boykin, it's a matter of experience.
"Young people are going to make mistakes," Boykin said. "But I feel like that's where the film study comes in, like Rennie was saying. When you're inexperienced, you've got to get in there because you don't have a lot of reps under your belt. You've got to watch more film to know what to look for and be prepared for, and that in itself will lead to a lot more consistency."
So what's the bottom line?
From fans, the answer for the past few weeks -- heck, the past few years -- has been coaching. But Curran doesn't buy that. The NCAA restricts what coaches can force a player to do or how long they can make a player work. Curran doesn't think the motivation has lacked. It's the determination -- not on the field, but off it.
“We all want to win, we’re all fighting hard, we’re all fighting our hearts out every single game, but at the same time, we also need to focus on playing smarter," Curran said. "That starts with preparation. Coach Martinez can coach his heart out, but it’s up to us to stay in that film room for an extra 30 minutes or whatever it’s going to take to learn those formations, those tendencies that will help us on the field when he’s not there coaching us up.
"That’s when your film preparation comes in. When the offense comes out and does something different that you haven’t seen before, you’re already prepared, you have your rules down that you always stick to. But that’s only going to come with the time you put into it as a player, being a student of the game, and knowing the ins and outs. It’s not always about just the coaching. It’s a lot of times about the player and how bad he wants it and how much he studies himself. That’s something we have to improve on.”
To quote "Office Space," what do you think of a person who does the bare minimum?
Of late, going beyond seems to be something that hasn't been as high a priority as some of Georgia's defenders think it needs to be.
“I feel like everybody individually has to look themselves in the mirror and see how they can get better, see what’s gone wrong," Curran said. "If that means sitting in the film room and watching and critiquing yourself, that’s something you need to do. You have to do those things to get better and learn from your mistakes. We’ve got so many other things going on with school, with our families, but at the same time, that’s what we came to this school for was to be great football players and to get a degree and make a great living for ourselves.”
Curran isn't getting any argument on that point from Boykin, who said there's likely a direct correlation between the amount of time spent watching film and the results on the field lately.
"Film study helps, and that might be the deciding factor in a lot of our games," Boykin said. "But I also feel like it's man on man, who's the best a lot of times, and it comes down to us not making the play. But film study would definitely help us as a group if everybody got in there and did what they're supposed to do."
And it will only become a bigger and bigger issue. Teams have beaten Georgia's defense routinely using play-action and misdirection. Boykin and Curran agree that the more Georgia struggles in specific areas, the more the opposition will continue to employ those techniques.
"We know that other teams are going to copycat each other and see what hurt us defensively," Boykin said. "We're going to work on it, and Coach Martinez, I'm sure he's going to do what he's supposed to do. We've got to search within ourselves now and really find out what we want to do with our season, because it's not going to get any easier."
“That’s another thing that comes from watching film," Curran said specifically of defending the play-action. "It’s eye progression and being disciplined. There are certain keys that give away that play-action, and those keys, you only know them if you study film, watch tendencies and know down and distance. Play-action is all about discipline in where your eyes go and knowing what you’re seeing.”
So what's the final solution? How do the Bulldogs improve a problem that has been plaguing the defense for at least a year?
That should be a simple sell, Curran said, although he admits some frustration that it hasn't been as easy as it should be.
But here's the bottom line, he said. Players are at Georgia for a reason, and if they want to be great, they need to remember what that reason was.
“At times like these you have to remind the guys of why we came here," he said. "It’s the same thing as last year. We’ve got so many things as college athletes and students going on in our lives, but we have to realize that the work that we put in during the offseason and how much work has gone into this whole entire season and just what we represent in the tradition and the guys who have done it before us – all those things come into play.
"It’s where we want to go. I’m sure if I ask all my teammates if they want to play in (the NFL), I’m sure they’re all going to say yes. But at the same time, you have to do what it takes. You have to sacrifice. You have to study. You have to have those late nights. You have to put in that extra time. Those are the things you try to drive home to your teammates that it’s not just going to come overnight. Success isn’t going to come just because you want it to or just because you work hard. You’ve got to work smart. You’ve got to do all those necessary things it takes to be a successful player. Just as if you wanted to get that degree or be a successful student, you’ve got to sacrifice. That’s the main thing.”