Georgia Bulldogs: Branden Smith

It’s almost that time. Georgia is scheduled to open spring practice next week.

In previous weeks, we've broken down several players and position groups to watch this spring. As we lead up to the Bulldogs’ first-team workout, this week we're making five predictions related to the upcoming practices.

[+] EnlargeDamian Swann
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsDamian Swann seems like the only safe bet to hold on to a starting job in the secondary next fall.
Today’s final prediction: The secondary remains in flux

No element of Georgia’s defensive drop-off was more concerning than the secondary, where the Bulldogs tumbled from eighth nationally in passing defense in 2012 to 60th last season, with their yards-allowed average jumping nearly 50 yards per game, from 175.6 to 227.4.

It was somewhat understandable, given that the Bulldogs had to replace four longtime contributors at safety (former All-American Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams) and cornerback (Sanders Commings and Branden Smith), three of whom were drafted. But the secondary’s growing pains were the most obvious and anger-inducing element of Georgia’s defensive struggles a season ago.

Coach Mark Richt and his staff certainly hope that the experience the group gained last fall will lead to a smoother fall -- and we do expect the secondary to improve under first-year defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt -- but today’s prediction is that the depth chart will remain in flux beyond spring practice.

That will be for a variety of reasons. One is that some players who could compete for immediate playing time -- I’m thinking of the versatile Shattle Fenteng, whom ESPN listed as the top junior-college cornerback prospect for 2014, and cornerback Malkom Parrish -- are not even on campus yet. Another is that Tramel Terry is only a few practices into his transition from receiver to safety, while cornerback Reggie Wilkerson is still on his way back from a torn ACL suffered last summer.

We know who the leading contenders are in these position races -- senior Damian Swann, junior Sheldon Dawson and sophomores Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley all return at cornerback, while safeties Corey Moore, Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger all gained starting experience last fall -- but Pruitt shouldn’t be in any hurry to anoint anyone as a starter. After last year’s results, he has no reason to do such a thing.

Swann is the safest bet to remain in the starting lineup. He has started 27 games in a row, after all, and is by far the most experienced player in this bunch. But beyond the senior cornerback, the other slots should be completely up for grabs. That grew even more certain when Richt booted starting safety Josh Harvey-Clemons off the roster about a month ago.

Pruitt has a couple of nice pieces to work with in this youthful secondary, but the group has a long way to go before it could be considered consistent -- or even competent. The coach has gotten impressive results from his defensive backs in previous stops at Alabama and Florida State, and he will almost certainly repeat that success at Georgia.

Don’t expect it to occur overnight, however. The improvement process will begin this spring, and it seems highly likely that competition at the various secondary positions will continue well into preseason practice.

Secondary looking to grow in 2014

December, 31, 2013
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Mark Richt painted a realistic picture last week when asked what it might take for Georgia's secondary to improve beyond its dismal showing of 2013.

It's a matter of inexperienced players -- basically the only kind of defensive back on the Bulldogs' roster -- developing confidence, he said.

“We've got to make a play first, then we've got to have a series that goes well, then a couple series, then a half, a game where you start making plays, you start getting better, you start gaining confidence,” Richt said. “But really we did not see that. I didn't see that throughout the year. There's some work, obviously, that's got to be done.”

Obviously.

[+] EnlargeJosh Harvey-Clemons
AP Photo/John BazemoreIt might have been a rough season for Josh Harvey-Clemons and the young Georgia secondary, but 2013's trial under fire should help the Bulldogs next season and beyond.
The stats by now are no secret. Georgia's secondary, which lost four of its top five players from 2012, was the weakest link in a shaky defense this fall. The Bulldogs ranked 10th in the SEC (68th nationally) in pass defense, allowing 232.8 yards per game. They were No. 84 in pass efficiency defense, allowing a 133.99 passer rating. And only two conference teams surrendered more yards per pass attempt than Georgia's 7.6 (Arkansas at 7.9 and Kentucky at 8.2).

It was a rough season any way you view it, although the Bulldogs hope it was only a temporary problem caused by a secondary that ranked second in the SEC in pass defense last season (Georgia's 175.6 ypg allowed in 2012 were just two yards behind conference leader Alabama) breaking in an entirely new group of defensive backs.

“I think every DB we have has played in a game or two,” said cornerback Damian Swann, who along with safety Corey Moore will be the only two seniors in the bunch next fall. “And I think with those guys getting some experience, it's going to be great. Now they know what to expect, now they know how tough it is to play in this conference. I'm really looking forward to seeing these guys get after it.”

Swann's statement is not entirely true. The Bulldogs will also have cornerback Reggie Wilkerson -- who missed the season after tearing his ACL during summer workouts -- and safeties Tramel Terry and Kennar Johnson, who both redshirted this season. They also have commitments from ESPN's No. 1 junior college cornerback, Shattle Fenteng (Loganville, Ga./Hutchinson Community College) along with incoming freshmen Malkom Parrish (ESPN's No. 73 overall prospect for 2014 and No. 9 athlete) and Kendall Gant (ESPN's No. 32 safety).

Add those players to the numerous freshmen and sophomores who played big roles this season -- cornerbacks Shaq Wiggins, Brendan Langley, Sheldon Dawson and Devin Bowman and safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons, Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger -- and the Bulldogs are well on the way to rebuilding a depth chart that took a huge hit. The losses started coming after the 2011 season, when cornerbacks Nick Marshall and Jordan Love and safeties Quintavious Harrow and Chris Sanders all departed either by dismissal or transfer, followed by the exodus of Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings and Branden Smith for pro football after 2012.

“Some young guys got thrown into the fire,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “I think it's like I told them, I said, 'When you get thrown into the fire, you can either get hard or you can wilt.' And I think they've gotten harder. I think I've seen a couple guys really improve, probably more than they would've if they hadn't been in that situation. So you've got to play the cards you're dealt and find ways to win games.”

The question now is how they improve to the point where they are not the liability they were this fall, clearing a path for Georgia to win more than the eight games it has won thus far in 2013.

Moore believes progress will be a natural development out of this fall, when Swann was the only regular who entered the season with a start on defense.

“We were pretty young this year and [had a] lack of experience,” Moore said. “Immaturity played a big factor this year and lack of experience and just communication and getting to know each other better on the field. I think that played in big this year. I think next year, we're not going to have those problems.”

That's the plan, anyway, and what Georgia's players and coaching staff will spend this offseason making sure will be the case when the Bulldogs open the 2014 season against Clemson.

It was far from a banner season for Grantham's defense and, while that was not entirely unexpected, the coaches know the secondary must show marked improvement over the next year, starting with the Jan. 1 TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl date with Nebraska.

“Did we have a chance to be pretty good? Yeah. When that's going to happen? I don't know,” defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos said. “A hundred different things, how they turn out, is going to affect that. That's what we had do work through, and we're still working through that, as we get ready for this game.”
With four players selected in Saturday's final rounds of the NFL draft, Georgia concluded the three-day event with eight players picked -- matching the program's record for most players picked in one year.

Last year the Bulldogs nearly tied the previous program record, eight in 2002, by having seven players selected. They reached the record this year when safety Bacarri Rambo went to the Washington Redskins in the sixth round -- although several players who hoped to hear their names called Saturday went undrafted, including nose guard Kwame Geathers, who opted to skip his senior season in college to enter the draft.

Georgia players halted a conspicuous trend Thursday when outside linebacker Jarvis Jones (17th overall to Pittsburgh) and inside linebacker Alec Ogletree (30th to St. Louis) were both picked in the first round. It had been eight years since Georgia had a defensive player picked in the first round, dating to when David Pollack and Thomas Davis were both first-rounders in 2005.

Defensive players dominated this draft class for Georgia, with seven of the eight picks having played under defensive coordinator Todd Grantham last season. Along with Jones, Ogletree and Rambo, nose guard John Jenkins (third round, New Orleans), safety Shawn Williams (third round, Cincinnati), cornerback Sanders Commings (fifth round, Arizona) and defensive end Cornelius Washington (sixth round, Chicago) were picked this year.

Receiver Tavarres King (fifth round, Denver) was Georgia's only offensive draft pick.

Shortly after the draft concluded, defensive end Abry Jones tweeted that he had signed as an undrafted free agent with the Jacksonville Jaguars.

Meanwhile, several other former Georgia players became available to sign with teams as undrafted free agents. In the next few days, Geathers, receiver Marlon Brown, cornerback Branden Smith and linebackers Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard could sign with teams via free agency.

Post-spring position review: CB 

April, 25, 2013
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Editor’s note: Our DawgNation post-spring positional analysis continues this week after focusing on the offense last week. Today we examine the cornerbacks:

ATHENS, Ga. -- Damian Swann’s hair isn’t thinning and he doesn’t wake up each morning with chronic back pain, but he does feel like the resident old guy in Georgia’s secondary.

The rising junior cornerback spent his first two seasons surrounded by veterans, but entered this spring as the only defensive back in the Bulldogs’ arsenal with any valuable field experience.

It’s a different feeling for Swann, who is going from student to big brother/teacher, but as spring practice winds down, he’s more comfortable with being the guy who is looked up to in this defense.

[+] EnlargeDamian Swann
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsDamian Swann broke up five passes and led the team with four interceptions last season.
“It was a challenge [to take on more responsibility this spring], but now it’s going to be even more challenging because I’m kind of the lone defensive back, period, that has established himself in this system,” Swann told ESPN.com Thursday. “A lot of people might look at it as me having to make more plays than I did last year, which is fine because that’s what I want to do.”

He also wants to make sure all the holes left by the departures of corners Sanders Commings and Branden Smith, along with safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams are properly filled. These weren’t run-of-the-mill players, either. These were strong, veteran starters that any SEC team would have loved to have.

Now, the Bulldogs have to replace them with a slew of youngsters, mostly freshmen, and Swann feels somewhat responsible for guiding them this year. He isn’t looking to be a father figure, just the best big brother he can be.

Still, taking on a leadership role and having to teach has felt odd at times considering Swann wasn’t even sure how much playing time he was going to get last season.

After playing sparingly as a freshman in 2011, Swann began 2012 as a starter only due to a rash of suspensions in the secondary. With Commings sitting for two games to start the year, Swann said he wasn’t surprised by his heavy playing time, but when Commings returned, he still found himself in the starting lineup. Then, when the Tennessee game arrived in Week 5, he was named the strong corner starter and would stay there all season.

He expected to move back to the nickel at some point, which was fine, but taking over one of the top corner spots left him a bit speechless. He went from 60-70 plays a game to 80-90, which was a lot for a youngster like Swann.

“That was a big push for me, just being a sophomore playing all those snaps in the SEC,” Swann said with a laugh.

Swann started 14 games last year and led the team with four interceptions and also broke up five passes. He even recorded two sacks, recovered two fumbles and forced two fumbles.

Quietly, Swann played a big part of Georgia’s defense last season, but he’s looking for an even bigger role in 2013.

“I want to be the guy that lives up to the expectations, that wants to be in the spotlight, that wants to cover your best receiver,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge for me, but I’m willing to accept that.”

Swann is actually in an interesting spot. He starts off as the team’s top player in the secondary, but he might not get all the attention he wants this fall. Offenses usually tend to pick on the younger guys, so Swann might not have passes thrown his way as much as he’d like.

That means his teaching skills will have to be that much better as he tries to coach up the pups around him. The good news is after all the time he got last season, Swann thinks he’ll have more time to help than worry about his own game once fall arrives.

“Last season might have been the best thing that could have happened to me and to Georgia because imagine if I wasn’t to play and we graduated all those guys,” he said. “Now, it’s going to a whole entire brand-new secondary with hardly any experience. Me playing as much as I did puts us in a better situation.”

UGA pro day notes: Chasing history 

March, 21, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- After 17 of his former players worked out in front of representatives from all 32 NFL teams on Thursday, Georgia coach Mark Richt expressed his opinion that this crop of ex-Bulldogs might set a new program record for the most players picked in one draft.

“I thought they looked great,” Richt said. “I don’t know what kind of times guys ran and all that kind of thing, but if you just look at their body types, how hard they’ve worked and just watched them do the drillwork and how smooth they looked, you could tell there’s going to be a bunch of Bulldogs out of this class make it in the league, and we’re excited about that for them.”

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Kevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesMark Richt expects at least eight Bulldogs to be drafted off of Georgia's SEC East-winning roster.
Richt’s 2002 draft class holds the program record with eight selections, but it’s highly possible the Bulldogs will have at least that many players selected in next month’s draft. Six players -- linebackers Alec Ogletree and Jarvis Jones, defensive lineman John Jenkins, safeties Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo and receiver Tavarres King -- all rank among ESPN Scouts Inc.’s top 115 prospects. Others like defensive lineman Kwame Geathers, defensive back Sanders Commings and defensive end Cornelius Washington all stand a good chance of getting drafted, as well, with an additional group of Bulldogs hoping to crack the draft’s later rounds or make a squad as an undrafted free agent.

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Three to watch at UGA pro day

March, 20, 2013
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Branden SmithScott Cunningham/Getty ImagesBranden Smith didn't get an invitation to the NFL combine in February, but the speedy CB will have a legitimate chance Thursday to increase his stock.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia has had three players picked in the first round of the NFL draft in the last four years. None of them were defensive players, extending a strange streak of seven straight years in which the Bulldogs have not had a defender become a first-round pick.

That will almost certainly change on April 25, when the league opens its three-day draft at New York’s Radio City Music Hall -- Bulldogs defenders Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and John Jenkins are all first-rounders in ESPN analyst Todd McShay’s most recent mock draft, while Ogletree and Jones are first-round picks in ESPN analyst Mel Kiper Jr.’s most recent mock -- but Thursday’s pro day workouts at Georgia’s practice facility could greatly impact those projections.

It’s obviously a big day for Jones, who did not work out at the NFL combine in February, but that’s also the case for several of his former teammates who will participate in Georgia’s pro day. The Bulldogs are tied with Alabama and Florida State for the most players -- six -- ranked on ESPN Scouts Inc.’s list of the top 115 prospects in the draft -- Ogletree (No. 12), Jones (No. 16), Jenkins (No. 25), Bacarri Rambo (No. 86), Shawn Williams (No. 92) and Tavarres King (No. 115). Thursday’s pro day will surely be well attended by NFL scouts and personnel execs. It’s a perfect opportunity for ex-Bulldogs who don’t have the draft profile of an Ogletree or Jones to catch somebody’s eye.

Let’s take a look at three players who can each help his own cause at Thursday’s pro day workouts:

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UGA spring preview: 5 positions to watch 

February, 28, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Coaches always emphasize the importance of competition during spring practice, and there will certainly be more than enough at Georgia once the Bulldogs start spring drills on March 2.

The competition on the defensive side of the ball will be the story of the spring, as coordinator Todd Grantham and company work to find replacements for the 12 departed regulars who figured heavily into the Bulldogs’ defensive plans last fall.

Here are five positions that bear close watching this spring:

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Last two classes made instant impact 

February, 5, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s coaching staff proved in the last two seasons that it is more than willing to play a newcomer in order to address glaring needs. And as they prepare to put the finishing touches on their 2013 signing class, the coaches can only hope that the newest Bulldogs can be as effective as their predecessors from that last two years at addressing Georgia’s depth concerns.

Mark Richt’s critics might once have had a point when they observed that his coaching staff gave veterans too much of a benefit of the doubt when it came to playing them over talented young players. The last two seasons have neutralized those criticisms, as it’s hard to imagine Georgia having won the last two SEC East titles without extensive contributions from brand new Bulldogs.

[+] EnlargeTodd Gurley #3 and Keith Marshall
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesFreshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall combined for 2,144 rushing yards and 25 touchdowns in the 2012 season.
Think back to 2011, when John Jenkins’ emergence at nose guard was one of the leading factors in Georgia’s defensive resurgence that carried the Bulldogs to their first division title since 2005. Or how tailback Isaiah Crowell led the team with 850 rushing yards en route to SEC Freshman of the Year honors. Or how Malcolm Mitchell and Chris Conley both made their share of big plays at receiver, as did Amarlo Herrera at linebacker.

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Georgia Class of 2009 review 

January, 24, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- In reviewing Georgia’s seven recruiting classes since 2006 -- when ESPN entered the recruiting game -- last week, we opined that the Bulldogs’ 2009 haul was the best of the bunch. As the various member sites from Recruiting Nation collectively review their schools’ 2009 classes today, let’s take a closer look at what made that group so special.


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By the numbers: UGA classes since 2006 

January, 18, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Here’s a breakdown of Georgia’s last seven recruiting classes and what they managed to accomplish in college and beyond:

2006
ESPN top five classes: Florida, USC, Texas, Georgia, Notre Dame
Georgia’s ranking: 4

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Rising stars: Five to watch on D 

January, 11, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt said Thursday that he wants his up-and-coming defensive players to ask themselves, “Am I going to be good enough to help this team win a championship?” as they work toward playing bigger roles in 2013.

There’s no question that if the Bulldogs return to the SEC championship game for a third consecutive year, those defensive players will have made enormous strides to get them there. They return every key offensive player except receivers Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, but lose 12 important defenders.

So let’s take a quick look at five key players who will lead the rebuilding effort for Georgia’s defense this fall -- and then three more to watch for good measure.


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Bulldogs plan to remain among elite 

January, 11, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- As Mark Richt turns the page from one season to the next, Georgia’s coach insists that his expectations will not change this fall.

The Bulldogs lose 12 key defensive players from a team that finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll and fourth in the USA Today Coaches Poll -- the third-best finish for a Richt-coached Georgia team in both polls -- but Richt said he still expects his team to rank among the national elite.

“We plan on being that. We hope to be that. We’ve got to earn that,” Richt said Thursday afternoon on his season-wrapup teleconference.

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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.”

(Read full post)

Position scouting report: Safety 

January, 4, 2013
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Editor’s note: Over the next several weeks, we’ll take a look at each position on Georgia’s depth chart and project how it might look in the future. Today we examine Georgia’s safeties:

Current two-deep depth chart:
Shawn Williams (Sr.), Corey Moore (So.)
Bacarri Rambo (Sr.), Connor Norman (So.)

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