ATHENS -- Tray Matthews walked back and forth, unable to stand in one place. He was understandably antsy. When his name was called for the drill, Matthews jumped in eagerly.
A buzzer sounded, signaling it was time to go to the next drill at Georgia’s football practice. Shaq Wiggins and the other cornerbacks jogged in one direction, while Brendan Langley stopped to get some water.
As fifth-ranked Georgia began the final week of preparation for its season opener at No. 8 Clemson, true freshmen were seemingly everywhere on the defensive side of the practice field. It has been evident since practically the end of last season that newcomers would be counted on heavily, but the reality is now setting in.
“Do they have that game experience yet? No. Will they get it? yes,” junior receiver Chris Conley said. “I think they’re gonna make some plays early and instill some confidence in themselves and this defense.”
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Georgia released an updated depth chart Monday, and 10 spots out of 23 in the defensive two-deep were occupied by players who had not played a down of Division I football. Eight were occupied by true freshmen. That counts Leonard Floyd twice, as he was listed as the top backup at both outside linebacker spots.
Two true freshmen were listed as first-teamers: Matthews at free safety and Brendan Langley at cornerback. That might not be unusual for some programs. But defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, now entering his fourth season at Georgia, has never started a true freshman in the season opener.
Now he might start two.
“Some guys are playing by virtue of the lack of depth. Some guys are playing because they earned the right to move ahead of some veterans,” head coach Mark Richt said. “Any time you lose as many starters as we did, you’re gonna have inexperienced guys jump in there.”
Georgia lost nine players who started at least two games on defense last year. The team signed 33 players for this year’s class, 19 of them on defense.
In some cases, veteran players held off newcomers this preseason, if just barely. James DeLoach is listed as the starter at outside linebacker, ahead of Floyd. Mike Thornton is the starter at nose tackle, just ahead of Chris Mayes, a sophomore who transferred from a junior college.
But Langley did more than just vault past other veterans for playing time. He has jumped past sophomore Sheldon Dawson to be the first-team cornerback. Both will play, but entering preseason Dawson was considered a shoo-in to start. Langley’s play changed that.
“He’s a guy with ability, a guy who can learn, and a guy who is dependable,” Richt said. “A guy who is focused enough to come in as a freshman and play like a veteran. He’s taken that approach in the offseason from what I hear. I know he was in tremendous condition when he got here. And he’s just done a good job of learning what to do and gaining the trust of his coach. That’s what it all comes down to.”
Langley’s physical play is what stands out to Conley, who has to face him every day in practice.
“Don’t let him get his hands on you because if he gets his hands on you he’s gonna flatten you right out, and that receiver’s not going anywhere. We really like that about him,” Conley said.
Freshmen are also poised to step in at a number of positions.
Wiggins is a second-teamer at cornerback. Tim Kimbrough and Reggie Carter are the top backups at inside linebacker. John Taylor, a redshirt freshman, is the top backup at one defensive end spot.
And Matthews’ backup at free safety, who would play if Matthews isn’t adequately recovered from a hamstring injury? Quincy Mauger is a true freshman, too.
The fact that the return to practice of Matthews was such a relief was another reminder. He’s a freshman and unproven on the college level, yet is setting up to be a key to this year’s defense.
“You’d like to have everybody’s who’s been on board kind of working towards their day to be good enough to handle it, because you want to have as much experience, at least within your system, as you can,” Richt said. “But sometimes a guy jumps in there and has got great ability and shows the ability to learn, and seems to be a mature enough guy that you give more responsibility than other freshmen.
“So you’ve gotta play them.”