In looking back at our defensive secondary during the 2012 season, the year was a bit of a mixed bag. The defensive backs had a bit of trouble to start the year, but given that they were without two starters (Sanders Commings and Bacarri Rambo) for two and four games, respectively, that's to be understood a bit. They had a tendency to give up some big plays early that caused some worries, but as the defense gelled after the return of Commings and Rambo, as well as the insertion of Damian Swann as a starter at cornerback in place of Branden Smith, we started to see much better coverage out of the secondary.
There are certainly reasons to be worried about the coming year. For starters, well, we don't have many returning. Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo, and Shawn Williams are all seniors and will be graduating and likely moving on to play on Sundays. In the four games when the secondary wasn't at full strength, not a single defensive back notched an interception (there were two interceptions in those four games, one by Jarvis Jones and one by Amarlo Herrera). Of the thirteen interceptions tallied by the Dawgs defense this year, only five of those interceptions were accounted for by players returning for next season (and one of those was by a linebacker). Damian Swann will literally be the only defensive back who will be on the field next year who has caught a pass from the opposing team's quarterback (see what I did there, Malcolm Mitchell?). Beyond that, there isn't much seasoned depth in the secondary either. Connor Norman, a former walk-on, is currently the backup free safety for the Dawgs, and Branden Smith, also a senior who will be graduating and no longer with the team, played nickelback, a position that's practically a starter on the team as well.
On the other hand, there are reasons to tamp down the negativity as well. To begin with, even though the team only returns players who accounted for five of the Dawgs' thirteen interceptions, this was a down year for interceptions for Georgia in general. In Grantham's three years as defensive coordinator, this was his lowest number of interceptions yet, having tallied twenty in 2011 and sixteen in 2010. Other items of promise are that, while Swann is the only defensive back returning, he did lead the team in interceptions in 2012, with four pick offs. On top of that, Swann seemed to know how to time his interceptions well, having them come in situations of need. He had one interception against Tennessee (a game the Dawgs squeaked out by seven), one against Florida (another one possession game, with the Dawgs winning by eight), and two against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl, a game that, though won by fourteen, was still in doubt heading into the fourth quarter.
The question now becomes, of course, who will man the defensive secondary for our beloved Red and Black in 2013? Well, I thought you'd never ask. We'll see Damian Swann at cornerback, to begin with, but you already knew that. Beyond that, playing on the opposite side of the field from Swanny (I just have a feeling Grantham calls him this), we have a few options. Devin Bowman, who played admirably while Commings was out earlier in the year, is a likely option to step in and assume a starting role. The rising redshirt sophomore and former four-star recruit was ranked the twelfth best cornerback in the class of 2011, and having had two years in the system, he's got as good a chance as anyone to shine in 2013. He has good hands, decent hips, and solid speed, he just has to make his hometown of Rossville proud by putting it all together on the field. Another player on the roster who could contribute here is Sheldon Dawson, a rising sophomore who was ranked the top overall player in the state of Tennessee last year and the eleventh ranked cornerback in the class of 2012. He has great ball skills, and with decent height at 5'11, could really step in and challenge his elder teammate for a starting role, or, if nothing else, should take the nickelback spot. There's also the wildcard of having Malcolm Mitchell go both ways and play offense and defense, which is certainly a viable option. It remains to be seen, however, if the coaches will truly commit Malcolm to playing in this fashion.
There are also three cornerbacks in the class of 2013 who could see some playing time given the depth issues. Brendan Langley, a four star recruit and the 22nd ranked cornerback in the country, according to Rivals, as well as Shaq Wiggins, a Rivals three star recruit and the 46th ranked player at his position in the US, both have pledged to sign with the Dawgs next month. Langley, at 6'1", 188, has the size that Grantham tends to look for in his defensive backs, while Wiggins, an undersized corner at 5'9" and 166 pounds, is said to have great hips, hands, and coverage skills. Finally, Reggie Wilkerson, a Rivals four star recruit out of Florida, has enrolled early and could also see some playing time. Of these three, my money would be on Langley getting the most time on the field, unless Wiggins pulls an Asher Allen on us and really turns it on strong upon enrolling in the fall.
At safety, things are a little more up in the air. At strong safety, Corey Moore should be the player who steps in to take over for Shawn Williams, lost to graduation. Moore has two years in Grantham's system, and as a true junior, as opposed to a redshirt sophomore, also has a fair amount of experience on the field, as opposed to simply practicing. Moore was a four-star recruit out of Griffin HS, and was ranked the twelfth best defensive back in the nation in 2011. Connor Norman, the former walk-on, has the most experience playing center field, as he covered for Rambo at free safety while Bacarri was suspended for four games to start the year. Norman isn't going to light up any highlight reels, but what he lacks in explosiveness, he makes up in dependability. Norman is the player who is going to be the guy you can simply count on...he'll know his assignment, he'll play the proper coverage, he'll make a sound tackle, and he won't lose you a game...he is the David Greene of the secondary. Unfortunately, that's not always what coaches are looking for, so there have to be other options as well. Behind these two gentlemen, five-star recruit and rising sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, out of Valdosta, will be the person currently on the roster who is most likely to challenge for playing time. If things stood the way the stand today, my expectation would be that, while Connor Norman will likely begin the year with a starting role, he'll lose it to Harvey-Clemons or another player by four or five games into the season. Marc Deas and Devin Gillespie also have a chance to see the field some, though it will likely be in mop-up duty.
In terms of incoming players, there are several who could throw a wrench into the aspirations of the players currently on the roster looking to see the field at safety. Georgia has five players who have committed to come to Athens in 2013 to play safety, and at least three of them are legitimate options to start. There are two junior college players out of Mississippi who will matriculate in the Classic City in Kennar Johnson, the 6'2", 180 lb., three star prospect out of Mississippi Gulf Coast JC (the same JC to produce Nick Fairley, Terrance Cody, and Jon Jenkins), as well as three star recruit Shaquille Fluker of East Mississippi JC, who, at 6'1" and 205 lb. is more likely to show up at strong safety as opposed to free safety. Paris Bostick, another three star player out of Tampa - Plant (the same high school to produce Aaron Murray and Orson Charles), will also be enrolling in the fall. The Dawgs also have two players who have enrolled early and will challenge for time at safety. Three star safety Quincy Mauger has the size to be a force, and the extra playing time could allow him to step up and seize the opportunity to get on the field a fair amount in his freshman year. The true gem of the class at safety, however, is Tray Matthews, the 6'1", 215 lb. beast of an athlete out of Newnan HS (the same program to produce Alec Ogletree). Matthews is a four-star prospect, and is rated the #7 safety in the country. He's also a US Army All American, and, having already stepped foot on campus, could very well be manning the backfield for the Dawgs in September. He's a hard hitter, he's all muscle, and bank on it, he will be the next great safety at Georgia, even if it's not in 2013 (though it very well could be).
Who do you think will show up against Clemson to start the season? Will Tray Matthews welcome Sammy Watkins back to action the same way Barkevious Mingo did in Atlanta on New Year's Eve? Will Connor Norman hold a starting spot for a full year? Sound off in the comments, and be sure to be on the lookout for the next review/preview tomorrow at noon.
Oh, and, as always...Go Dawgs!