Georgia’s march toward a shot at a third Southeastern Conference championship under Mark Richt could be stopped in its tracks Saturday night by a team whose coaching staff includes two men who ran the Bulldogs’ defense in Richt’s two title seasons.
Brian VanGorder and Willie Martinez, who Richt hired on his original Georgia staff in 2001, have had a rocky reunion in their first season at Auburn. VanGorder is the defensive coordinator and Martinez coaches the secondary just like they did at Georgia from 2001-04.
The Bulldogs led the SEC in scoring defense in winning the league championship in 2002 and reached the title game again in 2003.
When VanGorder left for a job with the Jacksonvillle Jaguars, Martinez, a former teammate of Richt’s at Miami, was promoted. The Bulldogs won another SEC title in Martinez’s first season as defensive coordinator with a unit that finished eighth in the nation in points allowed, but slipped each of the next four seasons before he was fired along with two other defensive assistants after the 2009 regular season.
Eighteen players remain on the Georgia defense that either played for Martinez, or were redshirted or committed to the Bulldogs during that time.
“I’m kind of happy to see him because I haven’t seen him in a long time,” said fifth-year senior safety Bacarri Rambo. “He taught me how to be aggressive. When I first came in playing quarterback from high school, I didn’t have that mentality to attack.”
There aren’t many ties left for VanGorder. The deepest is a family tie. His daughter, Morgan, is a senior who runs cross country and track for Georgia.
He will match wits with Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who was quarterbacks coach when Richt was calling the plays during VanGorder’s time on the staff.
“It’s been a long time since Brian was over there with them, but for the most part, their base offense and the things that they’ve done hasn’t changed fully. But they’ve done a good job of adjusting to their personnel,” Auburn coach Gene Chizik said.
Richt, whose team must win Saturday to clinch the SEC East title, said Georgia is “very different” offensively from when VanGorder was at Georgia, but maybe not that different from when Martinez was with the Bulldogs.
“I think we’ve changed a lot,” Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I know every single year we add more and more and more plays. He wasn’t here when we were doing the no-huddle. That’s a whole new side of our offense that he wasn’t here to experience as well and the up-tempo and the different plays and the way plays are being called. He has, what, nine games of film to watch? I think that’s all he really needs when he’s game-planning about us. I’m not worried about him knowing anything.”
Auburn’s defense has slipped even to the low bar set last year under coordinator Ted Roof.
The Tigers’ defense had a strong game in a 12-10 home loss to Louisiana State University on Sept. 22, but was embarrassed when they gave up a school-record 671 yards in a 63-21 loss to Texas A&M two weeks ago.
“It takes a lot of fortitude, a lot of personal pride, to push forward and get back on track trying to improve and get better,” VanGorder told AL.com.
Auburn is ranked 85th in the nation in total defense at 428.7 yards per game.
“I think everybody knows Brian’s body of work,” Chizik said of VanGorder, who was head coach for a season at Georgia Southern and then spent five seasons with the Atlanta Falcons, the last four as defensive coordinator. “He’s done a great job with being a defensive coordinator wherever he’s been. With us personally, it’s a transition period, for sure. We’ve had our peaks and valleys. There’s some games when we’ve played really, really well. There’s been some games where we’ve played well partly in the game whether it be starting off slow and then really for two and a half quarters really picking up the pace and really being effective on third downs and we’ve also had our low moments, which would have been the Texas A&M game two weeks ago.”
After Martinez left Georgia, he was secondary coach at Oklahoma for two seasons before joining VanGorder on the Plains.
“I was one of the people who was mad that he was gone,” Bulldogs senior cornerback Branden Smith said. “I know it wasn’t his decision that he left. We had a good relationship. He was a good coach. I don’t know. We really weren’t winning that many games. You can’t blame it on him.”
Georgia reserve safety Marc Deas, from Kissimmee, Fla, spoke to Martinez weekly as a committed recruit.
“It was kind of disappointing for me being in high school knowing that he was leaving,” Deas said. “If coach Richt thought that was the best thing to do, go along with it. It worked out for the better. It actually benefited us.”
Georgia’s defense under Todd Grantham has given up 22.1, 20.6 and 20.9 points per game in his three seasons.
The personal will make way for professional come gametime when VanGorder and Martinez coach against Georgia.
“All I know is that I love both of them, I love their families,” Richt said. “But I think we all know we’ve got to prepare our teams to play ball and that’s what will be going on from kickoff to the end.”