Georgia’s defensive lineup coming into focus

semerson@macon.comMarch 30, 2013 

ATHENS -- Mike Thornton has a sense of humor about his inexperience. Asked what game he saw the most playing time in last year, the junior nose tackle joked, “The games where we were blowing guys out.”

That looks like it will change. And throughout Georgia’s young defense, a number of position battles seem on the verge of being settled.

When spring practice began, only four out of 11 starting spots were set. Now, with almost two weeks of practice left, clear favorites have emerged at five of the open jobs, and the other two have at least have co-favorites.

“There’s certain positions where you can start seeing a frontrunner, where a guy is most likely gonna get that spot,” said Chris Conley, a receiver who faces the defense in every practice. “But then there are some where guys are pretty even right now, and they’re both making plays.”

The biggest development comes with Josh Harvey-Clemons, who everyone has said is one of the most talented players on defense but didn’t have a natural position. This spring Harvey-Clemons seems to have found his spot: the so-called “star position,” which is a hybrid of linebacker and safety.

Head coach Mark Richt said after Saturday’s scrimmage that Harvey-Clemons was the first-team strong safety when Georgia is in its base defense. But the Bulldogs figure to play a ton of nickel defense -- one player estimated it at around 70 percent of the time -- so Harvey-Clemons for all purposes would be a starter at nickelback.

“It really depends on what type of team we’re playing, and if it’s a team that runs like Alabama or something like that, then we’ll probably be base most of the time,” Harvey-Clemons said. “But if it’s a team that throws a lot, then we’ll play a lot of nickel. So it really depends on the game plan and what team they’re playing.”

The first opponent, Clemson, does throw a lot.

“Yeah, they do,” Harvey-Clemons said, laughing.

“I think he’s most comfortable at nickel,” Conley said. “He plays really well in space there. He’s a very big, long guy. … Just the fact that Corey Moore and Tray Matthews are going at it for safety right now, I think that might put Josh back down at nickel.”

Matthews has been one of the revelations of spring practice. The freshman, who was in high school four months ago, has played so well that it would be surprising now if he’s not the starting free safety at Clemson.

“Tray’s definitely got his spot down,” linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “He’s just always getting in a tackle; he’s everywhere on the field. It’s sort of like having a (Bacarri) Rambo or an (Alec) Ogletree out there. He’s definitely gonna be a playmaker this year.”

The strong safety spot, at least in the nickel defense, appears to be a close competition between Moore and Connor Norman.

When Georgia is in nickel, that likely will mean only three linebackers. But in the base defense, James DeLoach has emerged as the favorite to start at outside linebacker, opposite of Jenkins.

Amarlo Herrera, who will be a junior, has long been penciled in at one inside linebacker spot. The other one appears it will also be a junior: Ramik Wilson, who played sparingly the first two years but was installed at the spot and is holding off early enrollee Reggie Carter.

“Reggie had a good day (Saturday), but Ramik’s got that spot locked down,” Jenkins said after Saturday’s scrimmage. “He’s been in this system for a little while, knows the playbook, makes a good bit of plays and can handle all the hits they give him.”

One of the open spots is the other cornerback spot, according to Conley. While Sheldon Dawson remains the favorite to start opposite of No. 1 cornerback Damian Swann, several players said freshman Reggie Wilkerson (another early enrollee) is making a push.

Finally, there’s the defensive line, where the spring began with only one starter set, and right now it’s still that way.

Garrison Smith will start at end and figures to be the only senior starter on the defense. His backup is now John Taylor, who until a few weeks ago was one of the favorites to start at nose tackle.

But coaches moved the redshirt freshman to end, making the 320-pounder one of the biggest ends in the SEC.

“With (Chris) Mayes here, and Thornton here, holding down the nose spot right now, we don’t have to play (Taylor) there right now,” Richt said. “And he’s got really good quickness, so it’s not like he’s just a big guy.”

The other end spot is still open, but it’s pretty clear it will be either Ray Drew or Sterling Bailey, each a member of the 2011 signing class who has yet to play much.

Then there’s nose tackle. Thornton is now the only player at the spot who was on the team last year, although as he pointed out he hardly played. He’s also the smallest of the end candidates, at 6-foot-1 and barely 300 pounds.

“I’m not a Kwame (Geathers) or a John (Jenkins), so they could do things that I couldn’t, and I could do things that they couldn’t,” Thornton said. “So I’m just using my advantages in my corner.”

At the moment it’s working, as Thornton is getting most of the first-team snaps, with Mayes right behind him. In fact Richt said center David Andrews has had trouble blocking Thornton.

“He’s not quite as big, obviously, but sometimes that allows you to play a little bit quicker,” Richt said. “Michael’s made some plays.”

DE: Garrison Smith ... John Taylor

NT: Mike Thornton .... Chris Mayes

DE: Ray Drew OR Sterling Bailey

OLB: Jordan Jenkins ... Chase Vasser

ILB: Amarlo Herrera ... Ryne Rankin

ILB: Ramik Wilson .... Reggie Carter

Star: Josh Harvey-Clemons ... Damian Swann

CB: Damian Swann ... Devin Bowman

CB: Sheldon Dawson ... Reggie Wilkerson

FS: Tray Matthews ... Connor Norman

SS: Corey Moore OR Connor Norman

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