Smith shooting for starting spot

Branden Smith is showing up in a big way this preseason for Georgia, one year after he was missing from action during camp.

Georgia’s Branden Smith is making a strong case for a starting role this year after a five-interception practice performance earlier this preseason.
Morris News Service

The cornerback was nowhere to be found on the Bulldogs’ practice fields when he missed eight workouts last August until uncertainty about an academic issue was resolved in his favor.

“It was stressful last year,” Smith said. “Just thinking about everything that was happening to me.”

Now Smith is putting stress on receivers.

The junior from Atlanta made the biggest splash so far with a five-interception practice early this preseason.

“Right now, he’s a different guy to me,” coach Mark Richt said.

Smith has created buzz as a Bulldog during his career for what he’s done on offense. He scored a pair of touchdowns as a freshman, including a 61-yard touchdown on a reverse against South Carolina.

“I’m an athlete,” Smith said. “I want to be known for both. I’m trying to do whatever just to get the ball in my hands.”

Smith is focused this month on “trying to get a starting spot” on defense, but he actually started in all nine games he appeared in last year. Smith missed the other four games because of two concussions.

Georgia used five defensive backs in a nickel package approximately 70 percent of the time last year, estimated secondary coach Scott Lakatos. Smith is a starter in the nickel package.

“There’s an honor to being a starter in the base defense at Georgia and that’s what he’s fighting for,” Richt said. “If we open the game in nickel, he is the starter.”

Lakatos said Smith’s development gives him more confidence to play Sanders Commings more at safety. That would allow Smith and starter Brandon Boykin to play corner in the base defense.

“My main focus now is defense until they call my name on offense,” said Smith, also the team’s top punt returner last season with 10 for 143 yards.

The 5-foot-11, 175-pound Smith is stronger and more knowledgeable than he was at the end of last season and coaches say he’s become more competitive.

“I just see a guy that is serious about wanting to have a great season,” Richt said. “I really love the way he’s been competing. He was doing that in the spring, too. You could see a difference in the spring, but in the fall, he’s locked in, focused, competing, leading, hustling and making sure everybody else is hustling.”

Said Lakatos: “The biggest change he’s made is that his technique has improved a great deal since last season.”

Smith said he played at 160 pounds as a freshman. Now bigger, he says he’s “way better” at being more physical.

“As an SEC cornerback, you’ve got to be physical with the receivers,” he said. “That’s what I’m trying to do.”

Alec Ogletree, who played safety last year and is now a starting inside linebacker, said he expects Smith to “be more physical and have interceptions like he did last year.”

Smith had two picks in 2010. If he keeps practicing like he has this month, coaches will give him every chance to increase that total this year.

“He’s really bought into what we’re doing,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “I couldn’t be prouder of the guy. If he makes plays, he’s going to be on the field all the time.”

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