ATHENS -- Nick Marshall could have been a starting cornerback. Actually, it’s very likely he would have been. But everyone knows where he is now.
Chris Sanders could have been a starting safety. Again, it’s very likely he would have been. Instead this week Sanders signed to play at another school.
“Baylor,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said, with a knowing nod, after Thursday’s practice.
There is a giant “what if” about Georgia’s secondary, which struggled immensely this year, and it isn’t whether a ball had been batted down at Auburn ... although that’s a big one too. For as young and inexperienced as Georgia’s secondary was this season, it wouldn’t have been if Marshall and Sanders, along with receiver Sanford Seay, had not been dismissed from the team after a dorm-room theft.
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It took a season, but the incident proved to cost Georgia’s defense dearly.
“I don’t think there’s any question about that,” Grantham said. “Because if you look at all the other areas, we have guys in place that came in and were really productive. If you look at the back end, it was in place. But it was an unfortunate incident. Guys learn from it; I obviously wish them the best. But it obviously put a void in the structure of what we had and the vision we had moving forward.”
Sanders and Marshall both would have been juniors this year. Sanders in all likelihood would have moved into one of the starting safety spots, and Marshall could have started at corner, after getting valuable experience as a sophomore.
Instead Marshall is the quarterback at Auburn and Sanders is on his way to Baylor, both after detours in junior college. As for Georgia, it rolled with junior Damian Swann and a host of freshmen and inexperienced players.
“If you sit back and look at it, it could’ve been me, Chris Sanders, Nick Marshall and Damian Swann who are starting right now,” Georgia junior safety Corey Moore said. “But all those guys, except Damian, have moved on.”
Georgia ranks 10th in the SEC in pass defense and 11th in third-down defense, the two most important statistics for a secondary. It also only has six interceptions, the second fewest in the SEC.
Throughout the season, Grantham and secondary coach Scott Lakatos have been plugging leaks in the secondary. They started eight different lineups in the secondary, with four freshmen starting at least four games.
Lakatos was asked if he expected the growing pains would be as painful as they were. He hesitated a second, then answered, “Yes.”
After another moment, he added, “More or less. You can’t anticipate all the things that were going to happen, but yeah, you know there’s gonna be ... like when we talked about in the summer. Did we have a chance to be pretty good? Yeah. When that’s gonna happen; that’s a matter of a hundred different things.”
Swann, the only returning starter in the secondary, had a disappointing season. He struggled early, then improved as the season went on, although he still has no interceptions entering the Gator Bowl. It would have helped the secondary immensely for Swann to be the dependable rock of the unit, and instead, he spent much of the season trying to improve his own play.
Big things were expected of freshman safety Tray Matthews, who had a great spring, and sophomore safety-nickel back Josh Harvey-Clemons. But Matthews was held back by injuries, playing in just seven games, and Harvey-Clemons wasn’t quite the dominant force that was expected.
Freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins did emerge as a solid starter, providing a spark, and he had the team’s only defensive touchdown. But his emergence didn’t happen until midseason.
But Lakatos didn’t ascribe all the mistakes to youth.
“Some of the things we did, we did last year, too -- with all those guys that are playing in the NFL,” Lakatos said. “That’s part of pass coverage, at times. Every game there’s 20 plays that you’ve gotta get fixed. Fortunately last year we won more games than this year. So nobody really noticed it as much. But this year was obviously the year that cost us games.”
But Lakatos doesn’t see it as a lost year.
“I think they came along one years’ worth,” he said. “I mean, there’s no real way of measuring it. But they’re more familiar with what they’re doing. They’re getting better with the mental aspects of it, with the physical aspects of it. How to do things, learning why they do it, what they can’t do. You’ve got it all on video, ‘Here’s why it worked, here’s why it didn’t work, get it fixed, keep doing it,’ and let’s go.”