ATHENS -- Earlier this week, the Georgia football coaches met to plan spring practice. Head coach Mark Richt asked all of his nine assistant coaches for their top three priorities.
“They have a hard time making it just three sometimes,” Richt said.
It’s not hard to figure which assistants had that problem.
The Georgia defense loses seven players who finished last season as starters, and nine players who were good enough to be invited to the NFL scouting combine. Those players formed the core of the defense for most of Todd Grantham’s first three seasons as defensive coordinator.
The process of configuring a new defense begins Saturday.
Grantham has been trying to push back on the inexperience angle, saying that the Bulldogs return “eight to nine starters; it depends on how you look at it.” That includes players who started a couple of games here or there, from safety Connor Norman to outside linebacker Chase Vasser and defensive end Ray Drew.
But the bottom line is the returning core of the defense includes just four players: inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, cornerback Damian Swann and defensive end Garrison Smith.
The rest of the jobs, and the pecking order at all 11 spots, are up for grabs this spring. Here are the top candidates to rise up this spring into critical roles:
Josh Harvey-Clemons: Last year he and Jenkins were the top two recruits in the state of Georgia. Jenkins had five sacks, second on the team behind Jarvis Jones, while Harvey-Clemons hardly played. That should change this year, with coaches planning on using his considerable talents at both safety and outside linebacker, depending on the matchup.
“He’s a guy that can affect the game,” Grantham said, using a term that loosely translate to being an impact player. “He’s long. He’s athletic. He’s got a skill-set that not many people have with his size and athletic ability. We’ve got to find the right mix and combination of players. What you do in the spring is you take a guy like Josh and you say, ‘What combination of players make us the best, and if so where does he fit?’ ”
Sheldon Dawson: He played sparingly as a freshman last year but enters spring as the heavy favorite to join Swann as a starting cornerback. Dawson was the top-rated recruit out of Tennessee a year ago.
Corey Moore: The team needs a couple of new safeties, what with Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams having moved on to pro careers. Moore, who apprenticed under Williams the past two years at strong safety, is a decent bet to move into Williams’ starting role.
Tray Matthews: The recent graduate of Newnan enrolled early and has a chance to play right away. Whether he actually starts in the season opener at Clemson is uncertain, thanks to the presence of Norman, Moore and Harvey-Clemons. But long-term, people in the program believe Matthews is one of the answers at safety, so it’s just a matter of how soon it happens.
John Taylor: The nose tackle spot might be the most important in Grantham’s 3-4 defense, as evidenced by the improvement the team made in 2011 once John Jenkins arrived on campus and Kwame Geathers moved into a bigger role. Now both are gone. There are at least four players who are competing to replace them, including rising junior Mike Thornton and early enrollees Chris Mayes and John Atkins. But Taylor (listed at 6-foot-4, 335 pounds) drew praise from veterans last year while redshirting as a freshman.
There is plenty of talent on-hand, thanks to three straight years of top-10 rated recruiting classes: defensive ends Ray Drew and Sterling Bailey, inside linebacker Ramik Wilson, outside linebackers James DeLoach and Josh Dawson and a total of nine early enrollees on the defensive side of the ball.
Now the job for Grantham and the Bulldogs is to mold it into a unit that will have some cohesion once Aug. 31 and that all-important Clemson game rolls around.
“The big thing that we always go back to is, one, fundamentals at our position; two, learning to compete and play aggressive, because I think you have learn to win a position before you can help us win a ball game; and finally learn what to do,” Grantham said. “If we can get those things done, I think that carries over to the fall.”