Nearly a third of Georgia’s latest recruiting class is made up of commitments from defensive backs, and with good reason.
Georgia will bid farewell after the Capital One Bowl to four players from its secondary — safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo and cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith — who have started a combined 123 games and counting in their careers.
That opens the door for plenty of competition ahead and uncertainty at the back of the Bulldogs’ defense.
“It’s hard to replace production like that, physiciality and size,” senior linebacker Christian Robinson said. “Somebody’s going to step up.”
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham sounds ready to find answers for an overhauled unit.
“Based upon the guys we have committed, the guys we’ve got coming in and the guys we’ve got coming back, we’ll mix and match it and make guys compete and work,” he said. “They’ll be fine.”
Cornerback Damian Swann, who started every game as a sophomore, is the only player who seems to have a starting spot locked down.
Secondary coach Scott Lakatos said he told the remaining, younger defensive backs before the bowl practices that “this is your time to get better. … It’s like your own private spring ball. Everybody’s got things they have to work on, so let’s go have at it.”
Swann, who plays boundary corner, is one player coach Mark Richt said is proven among the returning. He has 47 tackles with two interceptions, two forced fumbles and two fumble recoveries.
“The rest of them, they haven’t proven it to me yet. I hope they do,” Richt said. “I want them to be the very best they can be, but they’ve got to earn it.”
The corner position opposite Swann is wide open with Commings leaving. Redshirt freshman Devin Bowman got his most action early in the season when the Bulldogs were dealing with suspensions. Freshman Sheldon Dawson has created buzz in practices.
“I expect to see a lot of playing time, but I’ve also got to keep progressing and keep getting better,” Dawson said.
Connor Norman started the first two games of the season at free safety when the Bulldogs were missing Rambo and Commings. He worked the rest of the season with the No. 2 unit. Sophomore Corey Moore, who’s played mostly special teams, will get a crack at replacing Williams at the strong safety spot. Freshman Josh Harvey-Clemons could also factor in there.
“I think we’ve got talent and I think we’ve got guys that are capable of playing Southeastern Conference football, but I have no earthly idea who’s going to play DB for us next year based on the maturity level of the group that we have here right now,” Richt said. “I don’t think they’re mature enough to be the starters. I’ve told them that you’re competing with guys that aren’t even here yet. And we’re recruiting our tails off. We’re going to bring some guys in here and you guys are here and we’re going to compete and we’re going to see who really belongs back there. Don’t think just because you’re next in line that it’s your job because you’ve got to earn it. Just know that on the front end.”
That’s fine by Dawson.
“We’ve got some great talent and we’ve got some tremendous talent coming in,” Dawson said. “I just love competition.”
Georgia has commitments from four four-star-rated defensive backs, including three expected to enroll early and be available for spring practice: cornerbacks Brendan Langley of Kell High and Reggie Wilkerson of Citron, Fla., and safety Tray Mathews of Newnan High. Another four-star prospect, cornerback Shaq Wiggins fron Sandy Creek High, is expected to join the team in the summer.
Safety Quincy Mauger of Kell and Kennar Johnson of Gulf Coast Community College are also expected to enroll early.
“We can get them in here and start working with them and evaluate them,” said Grantham, who under NCAA rules can’t comment on individual recruits. “When they hear it in the spring, it’s going to be all new, but then come August they’ve heard it, so then it’s not new. It’s almost like you’re a sophomore.”
Dawson and Harvey-Clemons have gotten Grantham’s attention with how they’ve played on special teams.
“Usually, that’s a pretty good sign of the player you have when they’re not playing offense or defense and they show up on special teams, particularly being physical and tackling and aggressive and playing that well, that’s going to translate into playing that way,” Grantham said.
Now all that unproven talent in the secondary will need to get experience.
“I don’t think it’s going to drop-off at all,” Commings said. “We have very talented guys, young guys, right now and I know we’re recruiting very talented guys, also.”
They certainly will have plenty of opportunity in 2013.
“We’ve really got some playmakers,” Harvey-Clemons said. “We just haven’t really got a chance to show that yet.”