Georgia’s X-factor finally arrives

semerson@macon.comSeptember 5, 2013 

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Geogia freshman linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons (25) left picks off a pass intended for Curtis Wyatt, (9) right during the first Bulldog practice of the season Thursday.

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ATHENS - Todd Grantham first saw the unique talents of Josh Harvey-Clemons on a scouting video. The first time Grantham saw him in person was in a basketball game. By then, Grantham was convinced: Here was something special. Here was a player who could be used everywhere.

Grantham, Georgia’s defensive coordinator, envisioned using Harvey-Clemons at safety or maybe at nickel cornerback or outside and inside linebacker. Maybe he could even start a play on the line.

Asked if he has ever had a player like that, Grantham shook his head.

“Not like that,” he said. “He’s pretty rare.”

After a long wait, the rare talent is finally ready to be sprung loose. It’s one game too late for the Georgia football team, but it hopes his presence can be the X-factor in its showdown Saturday against No. 6 South Carolina.

Harvey-Clemons, whom the team has not made available for interviews, was suspended for Georgia’s 38-35 loss at Clemson, as a result of a violation of the school’s drug policy. Now he’s available for what will be his first significant action on the college level, having played sparingly as a freshman.

But his skills have been known to Georgia coaches and players for more than a year now, as they have watched the tall and rangy Harvey-Clemons make plays and occasionally dominates at practices and scrimmages.

“He’s one of the best defenders we have on defense,” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. “He’s a playmaker, for sure.”

“He can make plays that other guys can’t get to,” junior receiver Chris Conley said.

“Josh may be the most physical defensive back we have,” junior cornerback Damian Swann said.

So would he have made a difference at Clemson?

“Absolutely,” Swann said. “A tremendous difference.”

That’s moot now, but the evidence is there that Harvey-Clemons can affect Saturday’s game.

Georgia will use Harvey-Clemons at strong safety in its base defense or at the star position in its nickel defense. At Clemson, freshman Leonard Floyd occupied the star, essentially a nickel back who is often used to rush the passer.

But Harvey-Clemons has the versatility to do more than Floyd, whether it be dropping all the way back into pass coverage or acting as a spy on the running abilities of South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw. Harvey-Clemons also has the lateral quickness to make plays from across the field, the way Alec Ogletree did the past couple of years at inside linebacker.

“He’s really a unique player, and you’ll have to actually see him play to understand how he does it,” Conley said. “He has the speed to recover, and make great plays in the passing game. But he also has the size and the weight to stick his nose in there in the running game. He’s fearless.”

Harvey-Clemons was a five-star recruit coming out of Lowndes two years ago, and Georgia won a heated recruiting battle. But the Bulldogs had to wait 24 hours for it to be official, until his grandfather signed his national letter-of-intent.

Last season there wasn’t really an opening for Harvey-Clemons on Georgia’s veteran defense. Besides, Grantham was still trying to figure out the best way to use him.

“We knew he was something; we just weren’t sure what,” Grantham said.

The 6-foot-5 Harvey-Clemons began at safety, with an eye on gaining weight and moving to outside linebacker. But the weight has never really come on, and he’s around 220 pounds now. Despite that, Harvey-Clemons packs a punch when he makes a tackle, according to teammates and coaches.

Grantham now sounds a bit wistful, like he wishes he could have found a role for him last year.

“I even think back to the Alabama game and the running backs. You’ve gotta have guys that can come in and thud people, and he can do that,” Grantham said. “I mean, he’s a big safety when he comes down in the run (defense) for us. I think he becomes an added dimension doing those things.”

In the offseason, Grantham basically built the defense around Harvey-Clemons, deciding to use him at the star. The Bulldogs are in their nickel defense (usually a 4-2-5) much of the time. So Grantham has utilized the star position during his four years at Georgia, with the likes of Ogletree (an inside linebacker) and Brandon Boykin (a cornerback) playing there.

But Harvey-Clemons seems the most ideal to the role.

“We thought he was pretty athletic, but once we got him here and saw his coverage skills and saw his length, he creates a different dimension for that position,” Grantham said. “A little different than a Boykin kind of deal. So we kind of chose to go that kind of route with him.”

The expectations for Harvey-Clemons should be tempered a bit. It will be his first significant playing time, and the Gamecocks have a lot of talent.

Still, it’s worth pointing out that Grantham doesn’t gush about many players. But he gushed about Harvey-Clemons and spent some time in preseason practice giving him some one-on-one attention, even though his pupil wasn’t available until the second game.

And now the second game is here, and Georgia hopes Harvey-Clemons shows the rest of the world what he’s been showing them in practice.

“Any time you get a good player it gives you a spark,” Grantham said. “He’s the kind of guy you want to play in a game like this, when they’re a physical running team. Because he can tackle big backs, physical backs. I think he can obviously help us.”

For more discussion on the Georgia-South Carolina game, join Seth's live chat at 3 p.m. on the blog.

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