There were questions coming into Georgia’s matchup with South Carolina about how well the Bulldogs’ secondary would play. Add in a late scratch for defensive back Rico McGraw, who has a right knee injury, and the concern became serious.
One 52-20 victory over the Gamecocks later, with only 84 allowed passing yards allowed, and Georgia fans have little to gripe about.
The success for the Bulldogs’ defense can partially be credited to Quincy Mauger and Johnathan Abram. The duo stepped up in McGraw’s absence and allowed little leeway for South Carolina quarterbacks Perry Orth and Lorenzo Nunez.
With Mauger playing the star position in Georgia’s nickel formation and Abram making his first career start at safety, the Bulldogs showed no signs of a learning curve against the Gamecocks. Abram finished his first start with four total tackles while the junior Mauger recorded three.
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“Overall, I think [the secondary’s play] was pretty good,” Georgia head coach Mark Richt said. “There were some rough spots here and there. I thought we defended pretty well. There's always a few things you need to get cleaned up.”
Mauger attributed the defensive backs’ play to the entire team’s ability to step up when bad things happen. The McGraw injury is a familiar test for Georgia, as the task of replacing an injured player is a regular occurrence in college football. Despite having some unproven people in unfamiliar places, Georgia prevented South Carolina from ever finding a rhythm throwing the football.
For the junior, it was a test not unlike the ones he’s faced in the past.
“We faced a lot of adversity through the years,” Mauger said. “I've seen it, like two years ago when we had multiple ACL and knee injuries. Just facing that adversity, I felt like we did a great job of staying locked in.”
The lack of problems attests to the recruiting of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who also serves as the team’s secondary coach. The next-man-up mentality is preferred in football but not always attainable, as the difference between the first string and second string is often noticeable. There was no such situation for the Bulldogs on Saturday night.
Senior linebacker Jordan Jenkins noticed this fact after the game. Despite the new scenario for some, there were few obvious blown assignments, no passing touchdowns allowed and one interception made by Dominick Sanders. The fact that no one stood out negatively in the secondary shows how close in capability the players in the unit are. That also means no one is guaranteed a starting gig.
“With the talent we have, there's not much of a drop-off between the ones and the twos,” Jenkins said. “That's just the type of players we have on this team. Just because you're a starter in these first three games doesn't mean you'll be a starter at the end of the season. One week one guy might have a great week and end up taking your spot.”
Richt said after the game McGraw should be back fairly quickly, which leaves the starting lineup for next week’s game against Southern up in the air. The return of the freshman will only help bolster the secondary’s depth, but his absence Saturday night allowed for Georgia to have its first taste of filling a gap caused by injury.
McGraw may not even be starting if he is healthy, like Jenkins intimated. His role as a starter against UL-Monroe and Vanderbilt could very well be a moot point as the season rolls along. Because no matter who’s back there in coverage, it’s all about doing your job on each and every play.