ATHENS, Ga. - Hours before Georgia hit the field on the first day of preseason practices this year, linebacker Danny Verdun Wheeler put front and center the large motivating factor for players on the Bulldogs defense during the offseason.
"Being 52nd against the run, that's a total embarrassment to me, this program and the Bulldog Nation," Verdun Wheeler said. "We're just trying to prove something this year."
Georgia's back-to-back shutouts have grabbed the attention heading into Saturday's game against Colorado, but a statistic that is nearly as important for the defense is ranking seventh in the nation against the run.
The Bulldogs have allowed 56.7 yards per game rushing after giving up 143.9 last season, the most for a Georgia defense since 1996. Arkansas (216), Auburn (227) and West Virginia (382) each topped 200 yards rushing against Georgia in 2005.
"The only thing that we kept on saying is that we have to do a better job against the run," defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said. "Just to really reemphasize fundamentals and getting better. We obviously weren't proud of the way we played."
Alabama-Birmingham rushed for 135 yards against Oklahoma and 124 against East Carolina, but was held to 68 yards against Georgia on a day it averaged 1.8 per carry.
"It's amazing. I had flashbacks again of last year when we were watching it," said Colorado coach Dan Hawkins, whose Boise State team lost to Georgia 48-13 to open the 2005 season. "You just go 'Woo.' They do a nice job, boy. They're big and their fast and they're well coached and they don't make mistakes. They are very, very good. It's like jumping into a pool of sharks."
Georgia is prospering defensively with the same linebacking corps as a year ago, but not without changes.
Verdun Wheeler leads all Georgia tacklers with 15 after replacing Brandon Miller as starting strongside linebacker. Jarvis Jackson (12 tackles) moved from the weakside to middle linebacker and Tony Taylor (four tackles, a sack and a quarterback pressure against UAB) from the middle to his old position on the weakside.
"They're all seniors, the starters are, and they're very aware of what's going on and why," Georgia coach Mark Richt said of group with 66 career starts. "When you know where you're going it also makes you quicker, too."
Georgia put an emphasis on more agility drills this summer, Richt said, to get the linebackers trimmer and quicker on their feet.
"I think our strength staff did a good job more in the running aspect and the change of direction aspect," Richt said. "I think that's helped us a good bit."
Georgia has nine players with at least eight or more tackles led by Verdun Wheeler and defensive end Charles Johnson (14). One reason: defensive coaches are subbing more freely than they have in Richt's five-plus seasons.
"There's a lot of different guys making plays," Richt said. "It's not like you have one guy making 16 tackles a game and another guy making 12 and everybody else getting two. It's spread around pretty good and that's a sign of a defense playing hard and we're also letting a good many guys play."
Of Georgia's nine remaining regular season opponents, four are ranked in the top half of the NCAA rushing offense led by Georgia Tech at No. 19, Mississippi at 34th, Auburn at 47th and Florida at 51st.
"We've still got a long way to go," Verdun Wheeler said. "We still ain't up there at the championship level we've really been (shooting) for in the offseason....We play some big-time opponents like Auburn or Florida that likes to move the ball."
Colorado, which has a running quarterback in Bernard Jackson who has just two collegiate starts at the position, is 85th in the nation in rushing at 104.7 yards per game but has the 115th rated passing offense (89.0). Tailback Hugh Charles rushed for 109 yards on 20 carries against Arizona State.
"I'm assuming that we will face some people more than we've been tested to this point," Richt said. "The things that's making our guys special right now is how hard they're playing and the amount of confidence they're playing with."