The challenge for Georgia‚Äôs overhauled secondary seemed imposing enough: slowing down a Clemson offense that ranked sixth in the nation in scoring and 13th in passing last season in the opener on Aug. 31.
That‚Äôs why having four defensive backs who were expected to play be either sidelined or limited in practice just two weeks away from the start of the season is slowing the unit‚Äôs development.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs hard to get better when you‚Äôre not practicing,‚Äù coach Mark Richt said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a problem, and playing Clemson, it does probably make it a little bit worse.‚Äù
Georgia entered the weekend with cornerback Sheldon Dawson limited from contact by a shoulder sprain, safety Tray Matthews limited by shoulder and hamstring injuries, safety Shaquille Fluker out with a lumbar strain and safety Corey Moore out with a knee sprain.
The Bulldogs already knew that talented safety Josh Harvey-Clemons will serve a one-game suspension to start the season.
‚ÄúRegardless of the situation, we need everybody on deck,‚Äù said junior cornerback Damian Swann, the lone returning starter after Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and Sanders Commings went in the NFL draft and Branden Smith signed as a free agent. ‚ÄúWe need everybody to be healthy and to know what‚Äôs going on.‚Äù
The injuries have complicated the evaluation of the secondary.
‚ÄúIt looks banged up,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúYou can‚Äôt hardly get better if you don‚Äôt practice. You can learn some things watching walkthroughs, film study. You can learn, but until you‚Äôre out there doing it, it‚Äôs just so hard to get good at anything. Also, to know what they‚Äôre getting, what they‚Äôre comprehending, what they‚Äôre able to execute.‚Äù
The good news for Georgia is that two freshmen cornerbacks have emerged as potential playmakers.
Brendan Langley from Kell and Shaq Wiggins from Sandy Creek each had interceptions in Wednesday‚Äôs preseason scrimmage, which encouraged defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Wiggins returned after missing practice time with a groin injury.
‚ÄúBoth of them average almost a pick a day and that‚Äôs good,‚Äù Swann said. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs a confidence-builder for them. I think that‚Äôs what they need when it comes down to the situation whoever is called upon to play at that other position over there. I think either one of them will be ready.‚Äù
Georgia‚Äôs starting secondary for Clemson in a five-defensive-back set could be Matthews, Swann, Dawson, either Langley or Wiggins, and Connor Norman or Fluker.
Richt was uncertain on when Moore may return from his injury. Dawson, who has shown a knack for snagging interceptions in scrimmages, was also bothered by a bruised knee this preseason.
‚ÄúThe whole focus is getting guys ready to play for the first ballgame and for the season,‚Äù Grantham said. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve had to move some guys around because of injury. In some ways, that‚Äôs OK, because it forces guys to learn more than one thing, which is a good thing. I thought our young guys were challenged (in the scrimmage) a little bit and made some plays. I see those guys getting better. ‚Ä¶We‚Äôre not there yet, but we don‚Äôt have to play yet. We just have to keep working.‚Äù
Norman said he‚Äôs rotated between free safety and strong safety and also lined up at the star nickel position, leaving him uncertain of where he will play in the opener.
‚ÄúI truthfully can tell you I have no idea,‚Äù Norman said. ‚ÄúThat is no B.S. right there.‚Äù
Harvey-Clemons was poised to play the star position, matching him against a slot receiver, but now that could fall to Swann, who played the spot last year and has practiced there some this preseason, or to Norman.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm not sure where I‚Äôll be at Week 1, but wherever I‚Äôm at, I‚Äôll be ready to play,‚Äù Swann said.
Swann remains upbeat despite what others may think of how Georgia‚Äôs secondary could hold up out of the gate.
‚ÄúThat‚Äôs just noise,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just noise. Don‚Äôt nobody strap it up but us. Don‚Äôt nobody get on that field but us. When it‚Äôs time to get in between those white lines, we‚Äôve just got to show up. We‚Äôre going to be ready. We‚Äôre going to be fine.‚Äù