ATHENS, Ga. -- If the last month taught Sheldon Dawson anything about Georgia’s green secondary, it’s that capability is not the Bulldogs’ issue.
“For us to be counted out so bad, we actually look good,” Dawson said earlier this week.
As Saturday’s game at Clemson approaches, the young players stepping into big roles on Georgia’s defense remain the team’s biggest question mark, although Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Tuesday he is “probably more curious than concerned” about how they will perform.
Nonetheless, with one of the nation’s most prolific offenses on deck, Richt admitted that a secondary that features five players who have never started a game -- including Dawson and true freshmen cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- listed on the two-deep depth chart will be tested.
“Those guys aren’t good receivers, they’re great receivers. They’re really prolific guys in the college game that are going to play on Sundays,” Richt said of a Clemson receiving corps that includes 2011 All-American Sammy Watkins. “So here you’ve got some young pups in there that are going to try and hook it up with them, it’s going to be tough. … It’s not a good matchup for us right now.”
Compounding the issue is that the Bulldogs dealt with an assortment of injuries in August. Junior safety Corey Moore is likely out against Clemson after spraining his knee. Dawson returned to practice last week after a number of ailments forced him to miss time during preseason camp. And freshman safety Tray Matthews missed several weeks before returning to his presumed starting role this week in practice.
His absence created concerns about continuity, but senior safety Connor Norman -- listed as the starting strong safety while Josh Harvey-Clemons serves a one-game suspension -- said Matthews’ participation in spring practice alleviated those problems to a degree.
“Obviously communication is crucial between safeties, so him not being out there, it creates challenges,” Norman said. “But at the same time, he’s been there, he’s been working and we talk all the time. So I think we’ve been doing the best we can when it comes to getting comfortable with each other. We had all spring together, also, so it’s not like he got here and he was out the entire camp. He had a spring here, so I think some of that chemistry was already created.”
Norman, who started twice last season, is one of only six players on the two-deep who has a start under his belt. Included on that two-deep of 22 players are eight freshmen and a junior college transfer who will make their college debuts Saturday night in Death Valley.
“Those guys have really embraced their opportunity to be out here and that comes with learning the defense and knowing it a lot better,” Norman said. “All the credit goes to the guys that have earned the opportunity to play because they’ve taken responsibility for themselves.”
Opportunity abounds on Georgia’s defense, but it exists at certain positions on the Bulldogs’ veteran offense as well -- perhaps nowhere more than along the offensive line.
After his three-year NCAA eligibility battle ended this summer, Kolton Houston has battled 2012 starter John Theus for the right tackle job in August. The two have split first-team reps at tackle, while Theus has also filled in at right guard while team trainers took it easy on starter Chris Burnette in his return from offseason shoulder surgery.
“I was the kind of guy for three years that I don’t want to slack off and hold back the past three years because I always thought that there was going to be a time that I could play, so I always wanted to be ready,” said Houston, on the verge of playing his first college game since arriving at Georgia in January 2010. “And so now I definitely have a little more of a spark, but I’ve always practiced competitively since I’ve been here. I think that’s what’s helped me now.”
Redshirt sophomore Justin Scott-Wesley also seems ready for an increased role at receiver after earning substantial playing time for the first time in his career in Georgia’s last game, its Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska. The UGA track star is listed as Michael Bennett’s backup at split end and is one of a number of less experienced wideouts -- including freshman Reggie Davis and Kenny Towns -- who received a longer look in August thanks to injuries to veterans.
“Anytime you can get game reps and experience on the field, it’s good for your confidence and it’s good for the coaches’ confidence in you and your teammates’ confidence in you,” said Scott-Wesley, who had three catches for 67 yards against Nebraska. “So me coming out and showing that I could handle myself in a gametime situation is good for me moving forward.”
More than any spots on offense, however, the young players in the secondary and at linebacker will be under the microscope in Saturday’s opener. This will be their opportunity to prove they deserve further playing time before Harvey-Clemons and the assorted injured veterans return to the lineup.
“Even a week from this game, we’re going to be in better shape from a safety standpoint, as far as health and guys that are available to play,” Richt said. “Do we have all hands on deck right now? We don’t, but the guys that are in there have to step up and play and do well.”