"I knew we had it in us," said sophomore defensive end Justin Houston, an All-SEC performer who led the conference in sacks-per-game. "I don't know what it was we were holding back, but we finally let it loose and started playing good."
It has been a complete revitalization at a position that struggled badly last season. With injuries mounting and experience at a premium, the Bulldogs mustered just 17 sacks in the regular season a year ago – the worst mark in the conference through 12 games. Worse yet was the performance of the defensive ends, none of which provided consistent penetration at the line of scrimmage.
More of the same was expected in 2009, particularly after Georgia was forced to use walk-on tight ends at defensive end during its spring game just to have enough healthy bodies to field a team. Add to that preseason injuries to newly converted end Kiante Tripp, a two-game suspension for Houston and an early season knee injury to senior Rod Battle and the Bulldogs had a recipe for yet another pass-rush disaster.
But that disaster never came to pass.
"We knew we could play, but we wanted to prove ourselves to people outside and also to our teammates," junior Demarcus Dobbs said. "Not having a good season like last year, the defensive ends have been under a lot of scrutiny."
Georgia currently ranks fourth in the SEC with 28 sacks this season – 11 more than the Bulldogs had at this point a year ago – and the majority of the dirty work has come from those beleaguered defensive ends.
Houston has racked up 7.5 sacks in just nine games and has 15 tackles for a loss. Dobbs has chipped in with 3.5 sacks after having just two a year ago.
"Demarcus has size, can move, can run, and he comes off that ball hard," Houston said. "He has an attitude about himself, and that's what makes him so good."
Even reserve Cornelius Washington turned minimal playing time into four sacks while freshman Montez Robinson added two more. It was a team affair – a far-fetched idea back when the Bulldogs were throwing a few walk-ons into the fire just to fill out the roster eight months ago.
"I really think our D end position is ready to take off," Richt said. "Dobbs and Cornelius I really see coming on well, too."
It has been a night-and-day difference from a year ago, and the turnaround has started with Houston, who had a stellar offseason in terms of conditioning, but earned an early season suspension after a violation of team rules.
Rather than sulk about the setback, however, Houston came back with a vengeance.
He earned SEC defensive lineman of the week honors just one game after returning from his suspension and his per-game averages put atop the SEC's leaderboard in sacks and tackles for a loss. All of that, and he also missed a third game against overmatched Tennessee Tech – a contest in which the rest of the Bulldogs recorded six sacks and 15 tackles for a loss.
"I thought about that game when I was hurt when we were racking up sacks," Houston said. "I thought if I had played that game, I might have at least gotten more sacks."
No matter. His teammates picked up the slack, with Robinson, Houston's fill-in, earning SEC defensive lineman of the week honors after that game.
It's been an uphill climb across the board, but Houston said it's hardly a surprise. The talent has always been there at the position, but putting everything together was an ongoing struggle.
Of course, on the other side of the Independence Bowl matchup, there's still that All-American for the Aggies who led the nation in sacks. He's pretty good, too.
But the funny thing is, Richt said, that long tape of one sack after another showed that Miller's best asset was his ability to take advantage when opportunities present themselves.
"He hasn't really been bull-rushing people," Richt said. "It's predicated on speed, change of direction and kind of a relentless attitude. The majority of them are when people get forced into third-and-long situations. When he knows it's high percentage pass, he can really get off on you and create all kinds of problems – a very tough guy to block with just one person."
That's an admirable effort, no doubt, and one that has Georgia's offensive line on their toes as they prepare for the matchup.
But making the most of an opportunity is one thing. Creating opportunities is another, and that's what Georgia's bruised and battered ends have done this year with increasing success.
And while the season began with little hope for big numbers, Dobbs said that the sudden turnaround might be just the beginning of what's possible in the future.
"It's very rewarding for us to have a season like we did," Dobbs said. "Especially Justin, there's no telling where he would have ended up if he'd played those games. But it didn't surprise us. We did open a lot of people's eyes, but there's more to come."