Competition at safety heats up

ATHENS — The cast of characters competing for the starting safety jobs at Georgia this spring is a motley crew.

There are veterans hoping for a fresh start and rookies hoping to prove themselves. There’s a junior college transfer and a converted linebacker. There are favorites, and there are dark horses.

And at today’s second spring scrimmage, defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos is hoping to take a major step toward finding the right role for each of them.

“The good news is that there’s a decent amount of talent here, and all of those guys can help in some way,” Lakatos said. “What we’ve got to do is figure out what they can do and in what situation. That’s kind of why you’re seeing a lot of mixing and matching guys. Every week we’ve had a different group in there.”

Last week, it was Bacarri Rambo and Jakar Hamilton running with the No. 1 defense, and they’re they odds-on favorites to still be handling that role in September. But nothing is set in stone.

“I feel like I’ve still got to win that job because the depth chart is not set yet, and that job is open,” said Rambo, the most experienced of the group in terms of playing time. “I’m working with the first team now, but I’m just trying to take advantage of this great opportunity.”

Rambo got more snaps than anyone while backing up Bryan Evans and Reshad Jones at both safety positions last season, and Nick Williams believes Rambo is as close as anyone to locking down a starting gig in 2010.

The competition, however, is intense.

Williams, who has switched back and forth from safety to linebacker three times since arriving in Athens has spent some time with the first-team defense, too. As has Shawn Williams, a rising sophomore who got a taste of action on special teams last season but hasn’t played many scrimmage downs.

Then there’s Hamilton, who displayed an impressive combination of athleticism and physicality while at Georgia Military College the past two seasons. There’s Makiri Pugh, a third-year player still trying to find a home. And there’s Quintin Banks, the veteran of the group, who has always been a favorite of the coaching staff but whose career has been mired by injuries.

“You’ve got different guys bringing in different qualities, so when you put all that together, we’re kind of — not bumping heads, but you look at things totally different,” Nick Williams said.

That dynamic has made the evaluation process a bit of a challenge for Lakatos. So far, he has rotated the No. 1 units throughout the spring, and the players haven’t gotten too much insight as to how the depth chart might look at any particular moment.

“Coach switches it up, and different weeks, different guys are going,” Nick Williams said. “It’s a lot of competition, and he lets everyone know no one has a starting job yet. It’s like a job interview, and every day you’re interviewing for the job.”

Lakatos doesn’t mind if his players view the competition that way, but he’s not necessarily looking for winners and losers in the competition. It may be a job interview, but he’s hiring them all.

The bigger issue, Lakatos said, is finding a combination of players that fit well together, and that has been a big part of the rotations he’s employed.

“We’re always evaluating guys,” Lakatos said. “We talk after every practice to see where guys are, move some people around, try some different combinations.”

Rambo said Lakatos is a stickler for technique, and the coach’s primary lesson is to ensure that each player is where he’s supposed to be at all times.

But that’s easier said than done. Even the veterans of the group have minimal experience, and even that experience is undermined a bit because the reps came in the system employed by the previous coaching staff rather than Todd Grantham’s new defense.

Getting the safeties excited about learning, however, has not been a problem.

“All those guys have a really good work ethic,” Lakatos said. “They’re always around asking questions. They want to know what’s going in tomorrow, what they need to get better at. They’re a good crew.”

Just how much his crew has absorbed during the past month will be on display today as the Bulldogs compete in their penultimate scrimmage of the spring. While G-Day still awaits next week, today’s practice is likely going to be the only time the players will work with the full load of plays the staff has installed this spring before toning things down in front of the cameras and fans next week. That makes today’s performance crucial in the battle for playing time.

“This scrimmage, we’re trying to figure out who’s going to be good at what on game day,” Lakatos said. “Who’s going to help with communications, who’s going to be able to absorb what we’ve installed and be able to execute it. We’re looking at all those things to find who we’re going to be able to count on in September.”

The significance of that isn’t lost on the safeties.

They have a diverse group, but they’re all working toward a similar goal, and today marks a crossroads in that journey.

“Every day (Lakatos) is coaching us to get better, and he said whoever starts is up to us,” Nick Williams said. “That’s basically what it is. He’s here to coach, and we’re here to prove to him we’re ready to play. It’s your own destiny.”