JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — As if the Georgia Bulldogs haven’t had enough adversity to deal with this season, what with injuries, fluke bounces and crazy plays, they arrived in Jacksonville on Thursday to begin preparation for the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl short-handed in the secondary because of something that was well within the control of two sophomores, strong safety and nickel back Josh Harvey-Clemons and cornerback and kick returner Sheldon Dawson.
Both were suspended and left home because of unspecified violations of team rules that could mean anything from not making grades (final exams were held two weeks ago) to the reason Harvey-Clemons was held out for the opening game of the season against Clemson, a violation of the team’s drug policy for having marijuana in his dorm room.
The Bulldogs meet Nebraska on New Year’s Day at EverBank Field (noon, ESPN2) in the second bowl in two years between the two teams. Both are 8-4.
Georgia and Nebraska arrived on Thursday and will begin practice today, the Bulldogs at Jacksonville University and the Cornhuskers at the University of North Florida.
Georgia coach Mark Richt, keeping to school policy, wasn’t giving out any reasons or clues for the suspensions, which were announced on Monday.
Richt preferred to dwell on the positives of the situation while speaking to the media at the Omni Hotel — which was to point out that Dawson was filling in for another starter who was going to be back for the bowl game anyway, freshman Shaq Wiggins, and that the Bulldogs have two other strong safeties, junior Corey Moore and senior Connor Norman, who have eight starts and 22 games played between them.
“We’ll be fine … we’ve got guys who will know what to do, have experience, and will step up and play,” he said as his team was being hosted at their welcome dinner by Gator Bowl Sports. “We don’t need a whole lot of injuries at that position, but we feel like we have guys who are very good football players who know what to do.”
The least impact will be losing Dawson at corner. He made the first start of his career in the final regular-season game against Georgia Tech and Wiggins, who had started the previous seven games, likely would have regained his starting spot. Wiggins has 16 solo tackles, three for losses and is one of five Bulldogs with one interception.
Richt’s injury fears, however, are well-founded. Georgia is a twisted ankle by either Wiggins or junior Damian Swann at the other corner from having to play another freshman, Brendan Langley.
Dawson was the team’s starting kickoff returner when the regular season ended but it’s been a job filled by committee most of the season, with four players returning four or more kicks. Freshman Reggie Davis will fill in there.
Tougher to replace will be the ball-hawking Harvey-Clemons, who is third on the team with 66 tackles and has piled up big plays in diverse ways. He has an interception, five pass break-ups, 5.5 tackles for losses, three fumble recoveries (no other player in the SEC has more than two), and has forced two fumbles.
Moore is first up at strong safety, according to the depth chart. He has 31 tackles, three for loss, and a sack. Norman has 23 tackles.
If nothing else, Georgia players are used to filling in for absent players, whether it’s because of injury or rule violations. The Bulldogs lost wide receivers, Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall and safeties Norman and Tray Matthews for anywhere from two games to the season.
“Not that we’re crying but I’d like to see what any other team could have done with that many injuries,” said defensive end Garrison Smith.
Regardless of the star-crossed season, Richt said playing on New Year’s Day in Florida is a nice consolation prize.
I’m glad we’re here, I’m thankful,” Richt said. “I’m always thankful when we have an opportunity to play in a bowl game and be here in Jacksonville, a great city. And I know the Gator Bowl committee does a great job.”