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Brendan Langley’s welcome-to-college-football moment came early in preseason practice. Receiver Jonathan Rumph, himself a freshman on the Georgia football team, fooled Langley into thinking he was running a different route.
“But he actually ended up running straight into me, and I went straight into the ground, like I was a feather,” Langley said. “I was like, ‘OK, I know what to expect now.’ ”
Fellow Georgia newcomer Shaquille Fluker had to get used to the lack of free time, between practice, meetings and then more meetings.
“Here, they’ve got our whole day,” Fluker said.
The adjustment, on and off the field, had better be quick for Langley, Fluker and several more rookie defensive backs. They’re going to play. And they might play a lot, right away in the season opener against pass-happy Clemson.
There is just one returning starter in Georgia’s secondary: junior cornerback Damian Swann. And several candidates to start or receive key playing time are either out for the season with injuries (cornerback Reggie Wilkerson) or suspended for the opener (safety-nickelback Josh Harvey-Clemons.)
Freshman Tray Matthews earned the starting free safety spot in spring practice. Barring something unforeseen, he will become the first freshman to start the opener in defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s four seasons at Georgia.
Sheldon Dawson, a sophomore who played sparingly last season, is slated to start at cornerback. But with Georgia set to play a lot of nickel and dime coverage, it’s very likely that Langley and Shaq Wiggins will play at Clemson.
Those two are getting crash courses in the defensive system.
“Whether or not I thought I was going to get early playing time, I’m doing the same preparation I would’ve done if I was at Alabama or somewhere I wouldn’t play until my sophomore or junior year,” Langley said. “The preparation’s the same. I try to go hard in everything I do.”
But he admitted there are some adjustments.
“In high school, I was kind of the aggressor. Now I’m kind of the aggressee,” Langley said. “But I’m stepping up to the plate.”
Wiggins has been limited a bit this week in practice because of a groin strain, making him unavailable to the media so far. But teammates have praised his abilities. Langley is the bigger of the two, listed at 6-foot-1 and 181 pounds, while Wiggins (5-10, 165) uses his speed and tenacity.
“Shaq, we all know he’s a feisty little dude,” Langley said. “He’s making plays almost every play. He’s real feisty, a great cover corner. He’s coming up and making plays in the running game. So you can’t really ask for more.”
Fluker, meanwhile, is fighting for the starting spot at strong safety. The competition is a couple of veterans: senior walk-on Connor Norman and junior Corey Moore. But Fluker, as a junior college transfer isn’t a kid just out of high school, and he has been spending time with the first team.
“I feel great about that,” Fluker said. “I feel real great. I’m gonna keep working hard and try to build.”
There isn’t much question about the ability of these rookies. They were all highly sought recruits who could have gone to other SEC or high-profile programs.
But the unknown is how they’ll respond when lined up against someone like Clemson’s Sammy Watkins, a preseason All-American, or most any college receiver, for that matter. Rumph, who gave Langley his initiation into practice, isn’t even among the top six Georgia receivers.
“It’s not high school. So those guys will blow past you real quick,” said Kennar Johnson, another Georgia rookie defensive back. “That’s where technique plays a big role. I run a 4.3, but one false move, and those guys are gone.”
So the young defensive backs are learning more about technique from secondary coach Scott Lakatos and graduate assistant Mike Macdonald.
Still, Grantham’s defensive system takes some time to master. But with a hard deadline of Aug. 31, the coaches say they’re not dumbing it down.
“Coach Grantham and our defensive staff is not slowing down or not reducing the installation, OK? We’re installing everything,” head coach Mark Richt. “We’re exposing them to everything in our playbook. Then when it gets time for game planning a certain team, then we’ve gotta decide what we’ve gotta reduce it to.”
But the hope is that it doesn’t have to be reduced by very much.
“If by the time we get to the game, we think they get it, then we’ll keep it in,” Richt said.