The last pass against Georgia’s defense was the kind of play it can only hope is a sign of things to come from its secondary.
Cornerback Damian Swann batted down a pass in the end zone off a deflection by linebacker Ramik Wilson and Georgia notched a double-overtime win over Georgia Tech on Nov. 30.
“That was a good one,” secondary coach Scott Lakatos said. “That was one of the highlights.”
Few plays ended as well this season. Georgia leaned heavily on inexperienced and young players in the secondary and opponents took advantage.
Taking small steps could lead to gradual improvement going forward, coach Mark Richt said.
“We’ve got to make a play first, then we have to have a series that goes well, then a couple of series, then a half, a game,” Richt said. “You just start making plays, you start getting better, you start gaining confidence. We didn’t see that, I didn’t see that throughout the year. There’s some work obviously that’s got to be done.”
Georgia gave up eight touchdown passes before October, including three against LSU, which had 372 passing yards in a Bulldogs shootout win on Sept. 28, the most the Tigers put up all season.
In November, Auburn threw for 243 yards — its second-highest total of the season — and Georgia Tech set a season best with 232. Auburn’s total included a 73-yard touchdown with 25 seconds to play on a deflected pass.
“We’re a team,” said Richt this week after a practice for the Jan. 1 Gator Bowl against Nebraska in Jacksonville, Fla. “There’s a lot of things that go into it, putting pressure on a passer … but we’ve got a ways to go. We were very young, we were very inexperienced. We took some lumps. Hopefully we’ve learned a lot. I hope to see improvement from the last game to this game. They’ve been working hard. I’ve got to give them that.”
Georgia ranked sixth in the SEC in pass efficiency defense last season during a 12-2 run.
After losing NFL draft picks Shawn Williams, Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo from the secondary, Georgia slid to 11th in pass efficiency defense and ranks 67th nationally in passing yards allowed at 232.8 per game.
“Some of the things we did, we did last year, too, with all those guys playing in the NFL” Lakatos said. “That’s part of pass coverage at times. Every game there’s 20 plays you’ve got to get fixed. Fortunately last year, we won more games than this year so nobody really noticed it as much, but this year was a year that obviously that cost us games.”
The Bulldogs have had nine different players start in the secondary.
That includes four true freshmen in safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger and cornerbacks Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley, three other first-year starters in safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Corey Moore and cornerback Sheldon Dawson, and a former walk-on in safety Connor Norman.
“Nearly every DB has played in a game or two,” said junior cornerback Damian Swann, the secondary’s lone returning starter, who struggled during the first half of the season. “Now they know what to expect, now they know how tough it is to play in this conference. I’m really looking forward to seeing these guys get after it next year.”
They’ve learned on the job.
“They’re more familiar with what they’re doing, getting better at the mental aspects of it, getting better at the physical aspects, how to do things, learning why you do it, what you can do,” Lakatos said. “You have them all on video, `Here’s why it worked, here’s why it didn’t work, get it fixed, keep doing it,’ and let’s go.’”
The growing pains were expected, Lakatos said.
“Immaturity played a big factor, lack of experience,” said Moore, a junior. “Just communication, just getting to know each other better on the field. …Next year we’re not going to have those problems.”
Georgia leaned on all that youth, in part, because of attrition.
Cornerbacks Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders were dismissed in February 2012 and landed at junior colleges.
Marshall is now Auburn’s starting quarterback and Sanders has signed to play at Baylor.
“If you look at all the other areas, we have guys in place that came in and were really productive,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “It obviously put a void in the structure of what we had and the vision of what we had moving forward. Some young guys got thrown into the fire.”
Swann has said Georgia felt the loss also of cornerback Jordan Love, who left the program a month before Marshall and Sanders. He’s a starter at Towson (Md.), which Saturday reached the FCS championship game.
Matthews looked like a budding playmaker in the spring, but he was bothered by a hamstring injury in the preseason and missed five games because of it.
The Bulldogs are due to return all of its key contributors in the secondary.
“I think what they took out of this year was just experience of going through all of them bad times,” outside linebacker Leonard Floyd said. “ Next year, I look for them to be way better.”
Grantham said: “All of those guys are really young players and their ceiling to improve I think is good.
Added to the mix will be two redshirt freshmen: Tramel Terry, who’s moved from receiver to safety, and Reggie Wilkerson, expected to contribute at cornerback but was lost for this season with a torn ACL in the summer.
Grantham expects Wilkerson to do “most things,” in spring practice.
There’s still one more game to play this season.
“I think with these guys that we have, they’ve played so much football this year,” Swann said, “if they study the game plan, I think we can have a big day.”