Georgia's secondary: Battered, but not out of options

semerson@macon.comJune 3, 2014 

Cornerback Damian Swann (5) and safety Quincy Mauger (20) started seven games together in 2013.

JOHN KELLEY — UGA sports communications

ATHENS - In the wake of Tray Matthews' dismissal, if you're looking for a deep analysis piece examining the Georgia football program ... well, I already wrote that. Feel free to read it again. Nothing has changed, rinse, repeat, the cheese stands alone.

The only thing different about the latest news is that Mark Richt did little to hide his contempt this time. "We are trying to make room for guys who want to do this right," was his official statement. Nothing about wishing him well, and quite a departure from what Richt told me less than a week before about Matthews. Clearly, something happened in the meantime; judging by what Richt said a week ago about needing to become a dependable player, and "it's time," it's a good bet Matthews was on his last strike, and whiffed somehow.

Otherwise, it's no longer news that Richt has a short trigger or that a talented ex-Georgia player will be suiting up elsewhere. It's going to be a pretty good race to see whether more current or former Georgia players make the 2016 All-American team.

But the key question now for Georgia is whether it has anybody left to field a secondary.

The answer is yes. A good one? That might be asking too much. But it can field a secondary. Here's the thing about Georgia's secondary: There were so many lineup changes that even with all these experienced players leaving, there are still plenty of seasoned players left.

- Cornerback Damian Swann, a rising senior, was the only defensive back to start every game last year. Yes, that's sort of like referring to the only French soldier to participate in every World War II battle. But Swann is an NFL prospect with 27 career starts, and four interceptions as a sophomore before struggling last year.

- Safety Corey Moore, another rising senior, started four of the final five games last year. Perhaps I'm guilty of putting too much stock in teammate recommendations, but I still remember how Shawn Williams, as he finished up his junior season in 2011, pointed to Moore as a potential starter the next year and a guy who could play. Williams didn't tend to compliment people, at all.

- Safety Quincy Mauger started seven games as a freshman last year. For all the kvetching over Matthews' departure, he lost his spot to Mauger midway through last year. Yes, Matthews' hamstring had a lot to do with that.

- Cornerback Sheldon Dawson is kind of a forgotten man, as he only has one start in his two seasons, but he was the first-team cornerback entering last year's preseason before Brendan Langley took the job. Dawson was the top recruit in Tennessee in the 2012 class, if you put stock in such things.

- Cornerback Reggie Wilkerson was the top reserve cornerback after spring practice in 2013, then tore his ACL that summer.

OK, so that's a lot of experience under the former defensive staff, which Georgia fans now contractually do not allow themselves to say anything nice about. Jeremy Pruitt, the new defensive coordinator and secondary coach, did think highly of several other players this spring:

- J.J. Green, who moved over from tailback last year, basically grabbed the starting spot at the star (nickel-back) position. He's small, but he's fast. Of course he also hasn't played a down of defense in college.

- Neither has Aaron Davis, who also happens to be a walk-on. But Pruitt made him a first-team cornerback during spring practice, and Davis was being recruited by some big colleges (though not Georgia) prior to a knee injury in high school. Just because you're a walk-on doesn't mean you can't play, and Pruitt has seen one start at Alabama (Reshad Johnson, when Pruitt was on staff in a player development role), and had Will Lowery playing safety on the 2010 national championship winner.

Finally, Pruitt and company haven't hidden their excitement in the incoming recruits. Cornerback Malkom Parrish has already been warned by coaches that they're eyeing him for early playing time. Cornerback Shattle Fenteng is a junior college transfer, which should make him a factor right away. And don't discount safety Dominick Sanders or cornerback Shaquille Jones, who may only be three-star prospects, but they committed after Pruitt's hire. That may count for something.

None of this to say that Georgia's secondary is going to be just fine. Shaq Wiggins and Matthews are talented players and had flashes last year. Josh Harvey-Clemons was the team's third-leading tackler. He's also a talented player, who just needs to find a position. Even Brendan Langley, who has moved to offense, was highly-touted as last year began.

The best course for a Georgia fan this season, at least when it comes to this secondary, is low expectations. Don't make the mistake of last year, where too many bought into the idea that pure talent would trump youth. It didn't. And this season a change in coaching philosophy won't necessarily overcome the talent drain back there. Maybe it will. Just don't count on it.

There's legitimate reason for optimism elsewhere on defense. The outside linebackers are future pros, and probably pretty high picks. The inside linebackers are solid SEC players. The line was pretty decent last year, and with only one key player gone, there's no reason to believe it can't be again, and perhaps better.

All that, plus a high-powered offense led by a Heisman-candidate tailback, should be enough to keep expectations fairly high. Then keep those expectations fairly low when it comes to the secondary. That may be the only way for a Georgia fan to retain any sanity on third down next year.

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