We've already taken a look at the front seven defensively, with our D-Line and Linebacker previews. Now we'll finish up the side of the ball Todd Grantham runs by looking Scott Lakatos' unit.
The New Jersey native hired away from UConn begins his third season in charge of Georgia's secondary having to almost completely rebuild after last year's unit lost a quartet of significant experience in departed seniors Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo, Branden Smith, and Shawn Williams. He'll also have to work around a suspension to expected starter Josh Harvey-Clemons, and injuries to Paris Bostick and Reggie Wilkerson (with the Ocala, FL native having enrolled early and impressed in spring practice too) will force both freshman to redshirt missing the entire season.
Damian Swann is locked in at one CB spot after leading the team with four interceptions last year, starting all 14 games. The junior from Atlanta showed a good nose for the ball, as evidenced by his picks, along with 2 forced fumbles and 2 fumble recoveries last year, but also impressive physicality as evidenced by his 53 tackles last season including 3 1/2 tackles for loss. Swann proved last year he is among the better CBs in the SEC, and is a candidate to enter the NFL draft early after this season. But aside from him, the rest of the defensive backfield is to be determined.
Senior Connor Norman earned starts early last year when others were forced to the sidelines. The former walk-on from Peachtree Ridge who spent a year playing football for Presbyterian College has played in all 28 games the last two years, although mostly in special teams work. While he can be counted on for coverage units again this year, he is also among those battling to start the season at S when we take the field against Clemson. While reports have him being passed by newcomers for a starting role, he seems likely to get extensive action off the bench, and provides a veteran understanding of the playbook that few of his competitors can share.
Junior Corey Moore also has a start under his belt, but just the one in 26 games over the last two seasons, and it was on offense against Ole Miss last year (really?). The SS from Griffin is, similar to Norman, in the mix to get action at S, but seems to have been passed by for a starting nod. Still, he should be a big part of coverage units in special teams, if not a larger role in the defensive backfield as well thanks to his experience with the playbook.
Valdosta's Harvey-Clemons was expected to be the starting SS this season, but smoking in his dorm room will force him to miss the season opener. He has worked at the "Star" position, which is a hybrid S/LB that works over the slot receiver in nickel packages. At 6'5, JHC is taller than your average DB, but has shown solid coverage skills and a willingness to put his nose into a tackle. An elite recruit, he's also worked some at LB, and can obviously help out at a number of different spots as needed. His suspension is just for the opener, so expect him back when Georgia gets between the hedges against South Carolina on September 7th. Although whether or not he starts depends on how the newcomers look in the meantime.
3 players return with experience on the field at CB, although senior Blake Sailors will almost certainly get more action on special teams than he will in the defensive backfield. Sophomores Sheldon Dawson and Devin Bowman have been competing for the starting spot opposite Swann on opposing WRs, and Dawson seems to be the leading candidate for the job. Bowman started the season opener last year against Buffalo, and has the size Lakatos reportedly likes at CB. He is in the mix as the 3rd CB and primary option off the bench in nickel packages.
But Dawson impressed as fall got colder last year, and took over in the spring. He was an "athlete" in high school, playing all over the field, so improved technique was needed since he arrived on campus. It seems like he's made those improvements and signs point to the 5'11 Memphis native having the potential to break out this year similar to Swann last season.
As you can suspect with so much experience departing, Georgia's staff made DBs a priority in last February's signing class, and the new names are already showing their stuff.
Newnan's Tray Matthews was the hit of the spring, literally and figuratively. Reports from camp were consistently glowing about the freshman's level of play, as he knocked out at least one if not multiple players on tackles in his first taste of college ball. The expectations are already growing for Matthews to be an enforcer over the middle Georgia has lacked since Thomas Davis and Greg Blue several years ago. Of course, as we learned with Davis and Blue, safeties who like to go for the knockout punch often leave areas exposed for big plays from opposing WRs, and being expected to play the FS spot instead of SS means Matthews needs to have more positional discipline and will have greater coverage responsibilities.
JUCO Shaq Fluker's highlight reel showed a similar penchant for big hits, and reports have him working in as the starting SS alongside Matthews in preparations for Clemson. Having earned All-American honors as well as a national title at East Mississippi Community College, Fluker has the ability to earn the SS job permanently and not just temporarily while Harvey-Clemons sits. He also, while not SEC experience, has played considerably at the respectable and highly competitive level that is the Mississippi JUCO leagues. As mentioned with Matthews, inexperience in your last line of defense often leads to big plays and long TDs for the opposition, so Fluker having started and gotten extensive action over the last two years will hopefully negate that a bit.
Fellow JUCO Kennar Johnson has been working in at CB, but has experience at S as well. At 6'2, he has the size and physicality Lakatos likes at CB, and his versatility should come in handy as injuries hit over the season. Joining him as a bigger CB who will get action is Kell HS product Brendan Langley. The 6'1 Langley could see action in nickle packages immediately with Harvey-Clemson out against Clemson, and will attempt to expand his role as the season progresses.
Shaq Wiggins is a different type of corner than Johnson or Langley. Listed at 5'10 (those measures are rarely accurate), and having been described as a " bumblebee " and a " lion ", Wiggins brings a type of game Georgia fans should be used to on the edge, having seen it before in Tim Wansley, Tim Jennings, and others over the last few years. He's been described as just a natural CB, and should see considerable action all year off the bench and on special teams.
Langley's high school teammate, Quincy Mauger, enrolled early this spring, but hasn't had much discussion of him so far in fall camp. He should at least get action on special teams, but how many defensive snaps he gets remains to be seen. I'm also curious about a walk-on who transferred from Eastern Oregon, Tristan Askew. He already redshirted, and being from the Pacific northwest doesn't fit the typical bill for a transfer walk-on. One would think he has to sit out this season as a transfer, but if he for whatever reason can see the field immediately, he could become a key contributor on special teams at least if not in a larger role for the defense. Can anyone add info on him?