- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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Editor's note: This week we continue to clean out our notebook from Georgia's spring practices to tell the stories we didn't get to tell before the Bulldogs' G-Day game. Previously we featured fullback Quayvon Hicks, tight end Jay Rome, defensive end Ray Drew, safety Connor Norman and receiver Rantavious Wooten. Today we recap a conversation with cornerback Damian Swann.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Count Damian Swann among the Georgia players whose expectations were fairly low when the Bulldogs’ rebuilt defense first took the field for spring practice. But it didn’t take long for that outlook to change.
“The first day, I kind of looked at it like, ‘Man, we’ve got a lot of work.’ But that just comes with we’re losing all those guys to the NFL,” Swann said of a 2012 defense that had seven players drafted and five more sign free agent deals after the draft. “We’re returning, what, four guys that have played a tremendous amount? So we have seven guys out there that didn’t really know. But after the first couple days once we put on pads, the first scrimmage, it’s like, ‘We’ve got something.’ ”
Swann made that comment midway through spring practice, but that optimism only grew throughout the spring -- up through the G-Day game, when the first-team defense largely held in check a starting offense that returns nearly everyone from last season’s record-setting unit.
Of course, the low-pressure nature of spring practice makes it a perfect time for unbridled optimism. Also factor in that the offense played without some of its key pieces for all or most of the spring. Nonetheless, junior cornerback Swann -- the only returning defender who started all 14 games last fall -- was reassured by what he saw from the numerous youngsters who got their first heavy doses of playing time in the spring.
“Before we went into [the first] scrimmage, we had our competition days where we’d go team this, team that, and out of all the competition drills with the one-on-ones and two-on-twos and three-on-threes, what we win are the team drills. The drills that really matter,” Swann said. “And that gave me confidence that, ‘If we’re doing this now with a very experienced offense, once we get very in sync come August, we should be fine.’ ”
Swann led the team with four interceptions last season and also forced two fumbles and recovered two more. But by this point it’s a well-documented fact that he is the only returning member of the secondary with any significant playing experience.
With that in mind, he took it upon himself to become a leader for the group by setting a tone with his play and even learning the duties at the safety positions so he could help newcomers such as safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger progress more rapidly. Prior to the spring, Matthews cited Swann as one of the veterans who best helped him learn what to do when practices began.
“I think if I know more, I can teach more,” Swann said. “Me being here, this is about to be my third year, I think I know exactly what to do at all three corners. So it wouldn’t hurt me to try and learn safety, strong or free, to try and learn either one of them so I guess I can be more helpful and more beneficial to the guys that are going to be playing with me.”
It wasn’t so long ago that Swann was the youngster who leaned on more experienced teammates to make sure he played assignments correctly. He played intermittently as a true freshman in 2011 before enjoying a solid debut season as a starter last fall.
Now the veterans who preceded him such as Sanders Commings, Branden Smith, Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams are gone, causing Swann to shift from mentee to mentor. He embraced that role this spring because he knew that was the time for the Bulldogs to endure their growing pains if they are to avoid getting embarrassed when they open the season against Clemson’s high-powered offense on Aug. 31.
“I think I have to take charge out there,” Swann said. “When guys are kind of confused, I have to tell it to them on the fly because the offense knows we’re new, but they’re not taking it lightly. So we’ve just got to get everybody on the same page so everybody can play fast.”
Editor's note: This week we continue to clean out our notebook from Georgia's spring practices to tell the stories we didn't get to tell before the Bulldogs' G-Day game.