UGA Football

Summer UGA football lookahead: Secondary returns majority of defensive experience

Safety Dominick Sanders will once again lead Georgia’s secondary.
Safety Dominick Sanders will once again lead Georgia’s secondary.

Georgia had great success with its secondary statistically a season ago as the Bulldogs led the nation in passing yards allowed with an average of 156.5 per game.

Of course, that number might have been skewed some since Georgia did face run-heavy teams Florida, Auburn, Georgia Southern and Georgia Tech, as well as a cupcake early on in Louisiana-Monroe. But even against teams that could throw the ball, Georgia more than held its own for the most part.

Head coach Kirby Smart, however, downplayed the statistical success by stating last year’s defensive scheme “protected” the back end with various packages and pressures. Protection or not, Georgia’s secondary still did a fine job and rarely gave up the big play. Now, it has an added year of experience.

Georgia will hope to see improvement with so many front-seven defenders expected to see lots of game action for the first time in their careers.

Players expected in the rotation: CB Malkom Parrish, CB Juwuan Briscoe, CB Rico McGraw, CB Aaron Davis, CB Deandre Baker, S Dominick Sanders, S Quincy Mauger, S Jarvis Wilson, DB Reggie Wilkerson, DB Rashad Roundtree, DB Kirby Choates, DB Mecole Hardman (freshman), DB Tyrique McGhee (freshman)

How they fared in the spring: This is Georgia’s most experienced unit, which will need to aid the large number of new players stepping into bigger front-seven roles. Sanders cemented himself as a leader and was lauded in this area by head coach Kirby Smart early during spring practice. The Bulldogs will need Sanders, who has started every game except one in his career (last season’s Florida game, in which he was suspended for a half for a targeting violation in his previous outing), to continue posting numbers such as the team-best six interceptions he had in 2015.

Mauger also brings valuable experience to the safety position and is someone who can rotate down to nickel back if need be. On the outside, Parrish locked down the No. 1 cornerback spot once again this spring and could be joined by Juwuan Briscoe as the top two. Briscoe ran with the first team during Georgia’s G-Day spring game and earned one of the program’s most improved player awards after its conclusion.

McGraw picked up where he left off as Georgia’s top nickel defender, and Davis appeared to slide into a primary backup role.

What to watch in August: The secondary’s scheme shouldn’t change too much, considering former defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt began his college coaching career as an Alabama assistant under Nick Saban and Smart.

A season ago, Georgia was fairly set in its defensive backfield rotation. Players stayed healthy for the most part, outside of a short injury-related absence from McGraw early on. But the development of this group will really hinge on how well it can play in man coverage on the outside, an area Smart noted needs improvement.

One big reason Georgia will need its back end to lock down receivers, especially early in the season, is the fact that the front seven is breaking in a ton of new players. It won’t be easy replacing pass-rushers Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins, thus making the secondary’s job of keeping opponents covered that much more important.

Breakout candidate: The obvious candidate is Briscoe since he might be moving up to a starter’s role. But since that’s too obvious, let’s branch out and go with Wilson, a safety who should be the primary backup to both Sanders and Mauger.

A year ago, Johnathan Abram served as Georgia’s third safety and showed flashes of becoming a pretty good player at the college level. But once the coaching change occurred, Abram elected to transfer and is now at Jones County Junior College in Mississippi for the season. Therefore, Wilson has a great opportunity to step into a bigger on-field role and produce for the Bulldogs.

Before Georgia's first spring practice, Kirby Smart discusses what he expects from the backfield.