ATHENS -- Damian Swann smiled and gave a direct one-word answer, which said it all.
The question: Are you a rah-rah player? Do you get in teammates’ faces?
Swann’s answer, “Nah.”
Everyone seems to like Swann, Georgia’s senior cornerback. There are no stories of fights at practice, he has never appeared in the police blotter or been suspended. The only criticism is by omission.
Last year, the Bulldogs’ secondary was a disaster, and it needed more leadership. That was what one former player said publicly, and others privately echoed it. And if not Swann, the most experienced defensive back and an NFL prospect, then who?
The problem is that’s just not Swann. Those looking for him to single-handedly turn things around just by his lung power will be disappointed.
That doesn’t mean Swann can’t turn around the secondary via his play. Or by more subtle forms of leadership.
“I’ve been playing sports a long time. Since I was 4,” said Swann, also a basketball and baseball star growing up in the Atlanta area. “I never really got into jumping a guy because he doesn’t do it right. Or jumping guys to get them excited. I’ve never been that type of guy. But throughout this team we’ve got plenty of guys that can do it.
“But at the same time, I’m probably a guy who’s going to pull you to the side and help you with it or pull you to the side and say, ‘You gotta pick it up a bit.’ That’s just me. That’s my personality.”
As Swann begins his final college season, he is hoping to turn around a career that started so well then hit a huge bump last year. He was a preseason first-team All-SEC pick entering 2013. He ended up struggling immensely, unable to step into the role as Georgia’s top cornerback.
He was put in an unenviable position. In a very young secondary, he was the most experienced player and was charged with trying to explain the complicated calls and schemes to young players. An indelible image from last year was Swann frantically signaling for a young teammate to get in position, just as a play was beginning.
And he had to do that while trying to adjust to being the No. 1 cornerback. Was that the problem last year? Was that why he struggled?
“To be honest, who knows,” Swann said. “When you go from playing with a group of vets, and you’re being the baby out of the group, you’ve got a lot of leadership to look at. You’ve got a lot of guys who you can pay attention to.”
Swann pointed out that as a sophomore he played with two first-round picks (linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree), and a senior secondary (Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams in 2012).
“It’s kind of one of those things where my success that year could have been because of that. Then me not having as much success (as a junior) could have been because they weren’t there,” Swann said. “But it’s always hit or miss. Who can really point out exactly what it was?”
Whatever it was, the hope for Georgia is that a new start under a new coach will be just the fix.
Jeremy Pruitt, the new secondary coach and defensive coordinator, has promised simpler schemes and signals. So no more frantic Swann signals to teammate, presumably.
It might not just be games. Swann will see better teaching, according to senior receiver Chris Conley.
“I think Swann’s going to benefit a lot from the coaching changes,” Conley said. “Swann’s a guy who pays attention to details and tries to do things the right way. And unfortunately in the past, there wasn’t a lot of detail given.
“And that’s the difference. That’s the huge difference with Coach Pruitt. Everything’s about detail, and everything’s about doing it the right way. So I think Swann will benefit immensely from those changes, and the defense in and of itself will benefit.”
Pruitt has been careful in doling out praise and has shown no preference for veterans. Still, when asked about Swann before preseason practice, Pruitt made it clear he still thinks plenty of Swann as a player.
“Damian’s very smart,” Pruitt said. “Football comes easy to him. He has a high IQ for football. Very instinctive, he’s got very good ball skills. Got good initial quickness, can change direction. So he’s got a chance to be a solid player.”