ATHENS -- Damian Swann, a sophomore cornerback for Georgia, was just riffing the other day about the defense. Not just the present, but the future.
You gotta start thinking, Were getting those big plays out of Jarvis (Jones), were gonna need a guy next year thats gonna deliver those same big plays, Swann said. I think once that time gets here well figure all that out.
It bears noting that Jones, the teams star linebacker, hasnt said hes going pro after this, his junior season. But it does speak to an underlying issue for the Bulldogs defense. When there is a presumed mass exodus after this season, what kind of drop-off is to be expected?
It might not be as bad as previously thought based on the performance lately of some younger players.
Freshman outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins is emerging as a star, ranking second on the team with three sacks, despite limited action to start the season. He has since become entrenched at the outside linebacker spot opposite of Jones.
Amarlo Herrera, still just a sophomore, leads the Bulldogs in tackles. He has established himself as a potential leader of the defense for however long hes around.
Then theres Swann: He had two fumble recoveries in Saturdays win over Mississippi. He also has two interceptions and a couple of sacks and is sixth on the team in tackles.
Swann is playing mainly as the nickel cornerback role, but with the rest of the starting secondary being seniors, hes set up to be the leader of next years secondary. Its part of what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham is hoping will become a steady progression in the program -- rather than a mass rebuilding job on defense in 2013.
Thats what happens when you get guys in your program, like a (Brandon) Boykin, and then you get a guy like Damian, whos behind him, knowing, Hey thats gonna be my spot when he leaves. Then Boykin shows him how to do it, Grantham said, referring to current NFL rookie Boykin, who mentored Swann. That can have a snowball effect on your program. At that position thats something thats benefitted the program.
It has long been known that Georgia was setting up for a transition after this year. Seven projected starters were seniors, and several other key players -- Jones, inside linebacker Alec Ogletree and nose tackle Kwame Geathers -- will be eligible to declare for the draft. The latter two are good bets to do so.
Thats why Grantham and the other coaches have been hitting the recruiting trail hard. Several recruits will have a chance to play right away, especially in the secondary.
But whether it be in games or practice, current players say the pieces are there for a good group of returning players.
Jenkins, Herrera and Swann have emerged this year. There is also defensive end Garrison Smith, who seems to have cemented a starting role and will be a senior next year. Players say theyve been impressed by a few other freshmen who have played sparingly or not at all: outside linebacker Josh Dawson, cornerback Sheldon Dawson and nose tackle Jonathan Taylor.
But another player gets mentioned even more: Josh Harvey-Clemons.
The freshman from Valdosta has hardly played despite being one of the teams top recruits. But in practice he is drawing raves.
That guy right there hes a skinny version of Greg Blue, Smith said. So if he finally gets into the weight room and builds into his (6-foot-5) frame, hes gonna be a dominant player.
He makes plays, because hes long and lengthy, Herrera said of Harvey-Clemons. So you really cant throw past him in practice.
All of this praise doesnt mean the Bulldogs will still be a great defense in 2013. Unless Jones or Ogletree pulls a surprise and stays, there will be big voids, with the vast majority of starters gone.
But the encouraging sign for Georgia is that several players guaranteed to be around are using this year to show what they can do.
Thats just a very good thing, to show that were gonna have players next year thatll play at a higher level, Smith said. Other guys, new guys have to play next year, they have to step up. Theyre preparing right now as we practice. Everybody, its just a process, everybody just steps up every year.