Spring preview: Georgia's defense

semerson@macon.comFebruary 26, 2013 

ATHENS - Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham likes to be a bit of a contrarian. So when he's been asked about having to replace so many starters, lately he's been pointing out that a ton of returning players have actually started at least two games.

That's all well and good, but it's also still fair to say that only four returning players finished last season as defensive starters: defensive end, Garrison Smith, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera and cornerback Damian Swann. That leaves seven spots wide open as spring practice begins on Saturday.

The story of the next few weeks will be how many of those spots are filled by newcomers or returning players who step up in the esteem of their coaches. Here's a position-by-position look at the Georgia defense entering the spring:

DEFENSIVE ENDS

WHO’S BACK: Garrison Smith, Ray Drew, Sterling Bailey.

WHO’S NEW: John Atkins, Chris Mayes.

NOT HERE YET: Davin Bellamy.

WHAT TO WATCH: Smith, who will probably be the team’s only senior defensive starter at Clemson, is assured of one end spot. The question is whether Drew and Bailey, a pair of 2011 recruits who haven’t played much yet, can take advantage of the snaps now available. Atkins and Mayes will also work at nose tackle, while a few outside linebackers, such as Josh Dawson, could be candidates to get snaps at end. But the most likely scenario is a three-man rotation at end between Smith, Drew and Bailey – but the latter two have to use the spring to show they belong on the field.

NOSE TACKLES

WHO’S BACK: Mike Thornton, John Taylor.

WHO’S NEW : John Atkins, Chris Mayes.

NOT HERE YET: Toby Johnson, DeAndre Johnson.

WHAT TO WATCH: If the seven open starting spots on defense are the story of Georgia’s spring practice, then the open spot at nose tackle is the biggest story within that story. New defensive line coach Chris Wilson has vowed to use a rotation, which is partly out of necessity, because there isn’t a John Jenkins or Kwame Geathers in this bunch. At least not yet. Taylor (6-4, 335) is more in the classic nose tackle mold, but the smaller Thornton (6-1, 302) has more experience in the system. Atkins (6-4, 305) and Mayes (6-4, 330) will also get their shot. The coaches are hoping that a wide-open competition produces a couple quality guys that can be counted on for the opener. (Toby Johnson isn’t likely to be healthy yet, and DeAndre Johnson is more a candidate for down the road.)

OUTSIDE LINEBACKERS

WHO’S BACK: Jordan Jenkins, Chase Vasser, T.J. Stripling, Josh Dawson, James DeLoach, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Ramik Wilson.

WHO’S NEW: None.

NOT HERE YET: Leonard Floyd, Shaun McGee.

WHAT TO WATCH: This mirrors the defensive end spot. An entrenched starter (Jenkins, possibly a star in the making), and the other spot could go to any number of veterans. Vasser, coming off shoulder surgery, might have the edge because Grantham relies so much on experience. But Harvey-Clemons, who will apparently get practice time at outside linebacker after moving to safety, looms large at this spot. Grantham has said Harvey-Clemons “will be out there somewhere.” DeLoach, Dawson and Stripling will also get their shot.

INSIDE LINEBACKERS

WHO’S BACK: Amarlo Herrera, Ramik Wilson, Brandon Burrows.

WHO’S NEW: Ryne Rankin, Reggie Carter.

NOT HERE YET: Johnny O’Neal, Tim Kimbrough.

WHAT TO WATCH: OK, we’re repeating ourselves here. One spot is assured to a veteran (Herrera, who will move into the Mike position, basically captain of the defense.) The other is wide-open. Wilson has cross-trained at inside and outside linebacker for two years, but all the depth at outside linebacker would indicate he’ll settle in at inside linebacker. (That’s an educated guess, not based on anything Grantham has said.) Burrows has been in the program awhile, and this spring may be his final shot to play well enough to see the field. That’s because Rankin and Carter will be here this spring to show they can play right away, and the other two freshmen arrive in the summer.

CORNERBACKS

WHO’S BACK: Damian Swann, Sheldon Dawson, Devin Bowman, Blake Sailors.

WHO’S NEW: Reggie Wilkerson, J.J. Green.

NOT HERE YET: Shaq Wiggins, Brendan Langley, Kennar Johnson.

WHAT TO WATCH: On paper we should repeat ourselves again here – Swann the assured starter, with competition for the No. 2 cornerback role. But most indications are that Sheldon Dawson impressed enough as a freshman to have the lead for that spot. Bowman will make a push too, but the team plays the nickel defense enough that whoever’s the third corner should play a lot. The question is whether Wilkerson and Green can push themselves into a nickel or dime role – or at least have a head start on the other three signees, who arrive over the summer. Wiggins and Langley were highly-rated, and Johnson is a junior college prospect. This position is fairly deep now.

SAFETIES

WHO’S BACK: Corey Moore, Connor Norman, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Marc Deas.

WHO’S NEW: Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger.

NOT HERE YET: Shaquille Fluker, Paris Bostick.

WHAT TO WATCH: Now this spot seems fairly wide-open. Harvey-Clemons isn’t out of the mix here unless Grantham says so. But if he is, then Moore and Norman, thanks to their experience, have the early edge. But Matthews may have the most long-term potential, and given that he enrolled early he could use the spring to vault into a first-team role. Mauger and Deas shouldn’t be counted out either. And with Fluker and Bostick arriving in the summer there is enough depth at safety – but the question is how much of a dropoff there will be from the tandem of Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo? And there will be a dropoff, at least in the short term.

Follow Seth Emerson at @sethemerson.

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