ATHENS, Ga. -- This won’t be the most crucial offseason of Todd Grantham’s relatively brief time at Georgia -- that honor goes to 2010, when he started installing his 3-4 scheme shortly after joining Mark Richt’s staff in January -- but it might be the one with the most roster uncertainty.
The Bulldogs will lose 11 key players off its 2012 defense, and that number could grow to 12 if junior nose guard Kwame Geathers declares for the NFL draft, so spring practice will feature major competition within every defensive position group.
“I kind of put them up on the board the other day and we’ve got some talented guys. It’s just a matter of developing them and working them and filtering it,” Grantham said. “Our depth is going to be better than it’s been the last couple of years, but it’s going to be young. So there’s a little bit at every spot.”
When Georgia next takes the field at Clemson on Aug. 31, there will be new faces contributing at every level of the defense.
Up front, the Bulldogs lose seniors John Jenkins, Cornelius Washington and Abry Jones -- and potentially Geathers -- with only Garrison Smith and Ray Drew returning among the regulars. And at outside linebacker, Jordan Jenkins will be back, but the most prolific sack artist in school history, two-time All-American Jarvis Jones, has elected to enter the NFL draft after leading the nation in sacks (14.5), tackles for a loss (24.5) and forced fumbles (seven) in a dominant junior season.
“We’ve got to find an outside ’backer opposite of Jordan,” Grantham said. “Up front we’ve got to get what’s the best combination of players.”
Chase Vasser, Josh Dawson and James DeLoach are all options to play opposite Jenkins, and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- ESPN’s No. 1 outside linebacker prospect in the 2012 signing class who played safety as a freshman -- might be in the mix, as well. Grantham wasn’t ready to commit to his 2013 position just yet.
“I don’t know. Ask me in a couple of weeks,” he cracked.
Up front, he expects early enrollees John Atkins and Chris Mayes to contribute immediately, noting that both players have the ability to play either nose guard or defensive end. And target Montravius Adams could probably do the same if he picks the Bulldogs on signing day.
“The thing about it is, I don’t like pigeon holing guys into saying, ‘He’s only this,’ ” Grantham said. “[Atkins] can be any of the things up front. He can play anything up front.”
Similarly, participating in spring practice could greatly help two early enrollees at inside linebacker, Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter, who get the jump on commits Johnny O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough -- and potentially No. 1 ILB prospect Reuben Foster, who is scheduled to visit on Jan. 25. The Bulldogs lose leading tackler Alec Ogletree and seniors Michael Gilliard and Christian Robinson, so Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson will be surrounded by rookies when they begin their junior seasons this fall.
“We’ve got to find out how to mix and match our inside guys, which we still have some guys that will be coming in in May or June to be a part of that,” Grantham said.
Perhaps the greatest turnover, however, will come in the secondary. Senior safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo played almost every significant down over the final 10 games, while senior cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith were two of the Bulldogs’ top three options at their position.
Damian Swann started every game at corner, but otherwise there will be plenty of uncertainty as the team prepares for the spring. Former walk-on Connor Norman played in Rambo’s absence last season during a suspension, while Devin Bowman, Sheldon Dawson, Corey Moore and Harvey-Clemons could figure into coach Scott Lakatos’ secondary plans, as well, but those are not proven options.
But a large group of newcomers that includes early enrollees at safety Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger and cornerbacks Reggie Wilkerson and J.J. Green will have the chance to play right away. Safety commits Shaq Fluker and Kennar Johnson -- both junior college players -- and Paris Bostick and corners Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley will have the same opportunity when they arrive in the summer should they sign with the Bulldogs next month.
Coaches love to emphasize competition during spring practice, and there will be more than enough for Georgia’s defense in the spring -- possibly more so in the secondary than at any other position. But at every defensive position across the board, Grantham expects that to be the theme of the offseason.
“The back has got to get some of those other guys here along with Tray and Quincy. So there’s a little bit at every spot,” he said. “There’s going to be a lot of competition and it will be pretty energetic.”