ATHENS - The Georgia defense looks a whole lot faster to coach Mark Richt. Maybe that's because he's been watching Rennie Curran.
The freshman linebacker brought speed and enthusiasm to a defense that will certainly be under the gun Saturday when the No. 8 Bulldogs host high-scoring Kentucky in their final Southeastern Conference game.
Curran spent the first part of the season learning the ropes in a backup role, but he was so impressive that Georgia put him in the lineup for a crucial game against Florida. He made his second start last week in a 45-20 victory over Auburn, coming up with five solo tackles, assisting on another and making one stop for a 3-yard loss.
"We're playing faster now than we did at the beginning of the season on defense," Richt said. "Rennie Curran helps us look faster. He has a knack of smelling out the play and going to get it quickly."
Curran, who played at Brookwood High School in suburban Atlanta, agreed with his coach's assessment of the improved speed on defense.
"Oh yeah, the defense as a whole is playing a whole lot faster compared to what we were doing at the beginning of the year," the freshman said. "The coaches have allowed us to play fast and not worry about mistakes so much."
Curran is still learning the complexities of defending a college offense, and he's not above making a rookie error or two. But his older teammates have helped with the big transition from preps to the SEC.
"Each and every game, we're getting better and better," Curran said. "The communication is a lot better on the field. The older guys are starting to step up a lot more and just take control. If I make a mistake, they get on me about it. I feel like I'm making a lot less mistakes."
Curran is one of several young players providing a boost to the linebacking corps. The Bulldogs played with the first two games with a starting unit comprised of senior Brandon Miller, junior Dannell Ellerbe and sophomore Darius Dewberry.
Since then, there's been plenty of shuffling. Ellerbe is the only linebacker to start every game, and even he's had to move around to all three positions. Junior Marcus Washington has started four times in the middle. Redshirt freshman Akeem Dent has gotten a couple of starts on the strong side.
For the Auburn game, the Bulldogs moved Ellerbe back to the middle, bumping Washington, so they could get Curran in the lineup on the weak side. They will likely go with the same combination against the 22nd-ranked Wildcats.
"I think some of that is the emergence of Rennie Curran," Richt said. "He's playing pretty stinkin' good."
Curran said he feels much more comfortable now than he did at the beginning of the season.
"I'm getting adjusted to the whole system," he said. "Things have become more like second nature rather than having to think about it and then do it. That's really helping us as a whole."
Plus, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez has been willing to overlook some youthful mistakes, figuring they are more than offset by having the 5-foot-11, 220-pound Curran flying around the field.
"They've been telling us not to worry about being a little off on the fundamentals," Curran said. "Just get out there and run to the ball. That's what coach Martinez is putting the emphasis on: playing fast and everybody getting to the ball. It's really made a difference."
When tight end Tripp Chandler was dropping passes and getting booed between the hedges, he had plenty of help getting through the tough times.
Like teammates Mohamed Massaquoi and Sean Bailey. And former teammate Martrez Milner.
All went through the same thing at Sanford Stadium.
"When I was going through some bad times with the fans and as a player, everybody was calling me up and talking to me about it," Chandler said. "I got calls from Martrez about it. Mo was talking about it. Sean Bailey was talking about it. They've booed all those players in that stadium."
Chandler struggled to hang on to the ball early in the season, drawing the wrath of the Georgia faithful, but he's emerged as one of the team's more reliable receivers. He had two catches for 44 yards in last week's 45-20 victory over Auburn, and ranks second on the team with 19 receptions for 266 yards and two touchdowns.
He appreciates the support he got when things weren't going so good, especially from Massaquoi.
"Mo definitely helped me get through that by saying some nice things," Chandler said. "He kept telling me, 'You'll get through it. All you have to do is make plays and they'll get over it.' He was definitely an asset to have during that whole situation."
Stat of the week
Georgia has defeated Kentucky 14 straight times at Sanford Stadium, including a 45-13 victory over the Wildcats in 2005 that clinched the Bulldogs' last SEC East championship.
On Saturday, they can lock up at least a tie for the Eastern title by beating Kentucky, though Tennessee holds the tiebreaeker edge over Georgia for a trip to the Dec. 1 SEC championship game in Atlanta.
SideBar: Kentucky at Georgia
When: Saturday, 12:30 p.m.