Georgia Bulldogs: Brendan Langley
Today we continue a series where we examine five position groups with room to improve. After touching on the inside linebackers, offensive line, outside linebackers and safeties, today we conclude the series with the cornerbacks, who struggled last season while rotating several players into starting positions.
Strength in numbers: On one hand, Georgia used a number corners during the 2013 season, so there are plenty of players with on-field experience. On the other hand, the group didn't exactly impress. Swann, Wiggins, Langley and Dawson will all be back -- and it will be the second season of actually contributing for all of them except rising senior Swann. Naturally it's a reasonable expectation that some of all of them might improve upon a rocky first season, particularly with new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt coming aboard to coach the group. Th Bulldogs also have Devin Bowman, a rising junior, as a member of the group.
New on the scene: It would not be a huge surprise to see signees Malkom Parrish or Shattle Fenteng jump into the mix immediately at corner. The super-athletic Parrish was the No. 77 overall prospect in the ESPN 300, and Fenteng was the No. 3 overall prospect in the Junior College 50 and the top cornerback. The Bulldogs also have Reggie Wilkerson and juco transfer Kennar Johnson coming off redshirt seasons. Wilkerson, an early enrollee last season, might have played a role if not for a season-ending knee injury that he suffered during summer conditioning workouts. Also, as we mentioned on Thursday, Shaquille Jones and Dominick Sanders have the versatility to play either cornerback or safety depending on need.
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.”
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.”
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 119 overall in 2012, No. 11 defensive tackle
This season: The prep school transfer did not seize a role in the defensive line rotation, but impressed coaches and teammates with a promising skill set that could help him play multiple positions in the future.
Veteran's perspective: “John Atkins' footwork is crazy for a big guy. He's like 320 -- we're the same size – and he has amazing footwork and work ethic. He's going to be one of those guys popping off the scene next year.” -- sophomore defensive lineman Chris Mayes
Davin Bellamy, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 299 overall, No. 25 defensive end
This season: Underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason, but could have played this season according to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham were it not for the emergence of Floyd and Jordan Jenkins at his position.
Veteran's perspective: “Bellamy's a big-bodied kid. I know just from being around him, he has a giant attitude. And when I say that, it's a good thing. He believes in himself and what he can do. He thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread, which is the attitude that you have to have when you're playing football because if you don't believe in yourself, nobody will.” -- junior defensive end Ray Drew
Paris Bostick, Fr., ILB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 55 safety
This season: Grantham compares Bostick's skills to those of another converted safety -- former UGA linebacker Alec Ogletree. Bostick suffered a toe injury during the summer and returned to practice during the season.
Veteran's perspective: “Bigger than what most people think -- real big dude now. He's just trying to learn the system and figure out where he's going to fit in at. … He's a real big dude, but he still runs like a safety. He's fast. He's going to be a real good addition to us.” -- junior linebacker Ramik Wilson
Shaquille Fluker, Jr., S
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 36 on Junior College 50, No. 2 safety
This season: Initially set back by an array of physical ailments, Fluker was designated as a redshirt candidate by midseason. He announced this week his plans to transfer in search of playing time.
Coach's perspective: “I can't comment on any medical situation, but everybody wants to play more, obviously, and I hope wherever he goes, he gets to play. I hope he finds a good home. I like him a lot. He's a good kid. I'm very confident we had his best interests at heart the entire time he was here at Georgia and we treated him well.” -- coach Mark Richt
DeAndre Johnson, Fr., DL
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 84 defensive tackle
This season: The youngest defensive lineman on the roster, Johnson needs to have a productive offseason in order to crack a veteran-heavy rotation next season, defensive line coach Chris Wilson said.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a low-pad-level player, just a young guy that's got to build up and get more experience and get comfortable with the game. … I think he'll be able to play the 3-technique as he has to learn the game and progress. For his size, he's pretty shifty, so I think he'll be all right.” -- Mayes
Kennar Johnson, Jr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 4 safety
This season: Injuries slowed Johnson's development early in the season and the coaches opted to redshirt him instead of utilizing another inexperienced player in a youthful secondary.
Veteran's perspective: “KJ is an athlete. He's very fast. It just comes with being able to compete and learning the system. I think he was kind of put in a bad situation coming in playing behind Corey [Moore], playing behind Tray [Matthews], who was here in the spring, and playing behind Josh [Harvey-Clemons] who's been here for two years. … [Johnson and Fluker were] playing behind guys who had already been here that grasped the system very well. That kind of put them behind the 8-ball a little bit.” -- junior cornerback Damian Swann
Shaun McGee, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 43 defensive end
This season: Capable of playing inside or outside, McGee's development this offseason will establish which of the two spots he plays next fall according to Grantham.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a little bit shorter, but he's very strong. His legs are massive and he can run. He has great speed off the edge, so I see that being one of his best contributions to the team.” -- Drew
Reggie Wilkerson, Fr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 163 overall, No. 15 athlete
This season: Enrolled in January and was on track to contribute this season before suffering a season-ending knee injury during summer workouts.
Veteran's perspective: “Reggie had a pretty good spring and he had a freak injury during the summer doing [pass skeleton drills] and we lost him. But I think he can be a big key and big part of this secondary with what we already have with Sheldon [Dawson], with Shaq and with [Brendan] Langley.” -- Swann
The speed typically increases as a talented, capable player grows more comfortable with what he's doing -- and that's why Shaq Wiggins' interception for a 39-yard touchdown last Saturday against Vanderbilt is an encouraging sign for the freshman cornerback.
“I was sitting there and lining up and trying to figure out what we're going to do and if we were lined up right,” Georgia outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “When I saw it on film, Shaq read it in maybe two seconds. He saw that nobody was blocking him and they made a mistake and just left him unblocked. He saw the quarterback go back and he took off in front of the man and just picked it off. That's definitely something you don't see out of many young guys this early in their career.”
This has been far from a banner season for Georgia's beleagured defensive backfield, but Wiggins is quickly emerging as a bright spot. He gave up a couple of long passes against Missouri -- including one for a fourth-quarter touchdown on a double pass -- but has also made some big plays.
He started for the third straight game against Vanderbilt and recorded both an interception and a pass breakup that was nearly his second pick of the game. He said learning how to make better use of his study time has helped him become a more productive defender, as he said he had seen the trick play the Commodores attempted before on film.
“I was kind of confused when all those linemen came out, so I knew it was either going to be a screen or a pass to the other side, to the other receivers. … I just kind of read it before those big linemen got some hands on me and just made a play on the ball,” Wiggins said.
The truly impressive part is that Georgia hadn't worked on that play at all, Jenkins said. The freshman simply made a quick decision that allowed him to short circuit the play before the Commodores knew what hit them.
“I'd never seen an alignment like that before,” Jenkins said. “That wasn't in our dress rehearsal, anything, and you've got to credit Shaq for that.”
“That is the kind of play Georgia's players are beginning to expect from Wiggins. He has already shot into the backfield on screen passes to record three tackles for a loss and generally displayed the competitiveness and speed that helped make him the highest-rated prospect in Georgia's 2013 signing class according to ESPN's recruiting rankings.
I called it before the game in an interview I did. They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins.” Defensive end Garrison Smith on Wiggins' pick-six vs. Vanderbilt.
“I called it before the game in an interview I did,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “They asked me who was going to make a play on the ball, who was going to get a strip or an interception or something and I said it was Shaq Wiggins. Some guys are just gifted with different abilities and he's just one of the guys that I can tell he's got great ball skills. That's one of the things he's good at, so I wasn't surprised at all when he did that.”
Like secondary mates Brendan Langley, Quincy Mauger and Tray Matthews, Wiggins is a freshman who was thrown into the fire because of the Bulldogs' lack of veteran depth at their positions.
They have all experienced their struggles, but a play like his pick-six confirms that the light is clicking on for Wiggins. The big plays he surrendered against Missouri were a painful learning experience, too, but the freshman believes difficult matchups against such high-caliber receivers as Vandy's Jordan Matthews and Mizzou's Dorial Green-Beckham will only help accelerate his development.
Even for a player so small that Jenkins joked with him that Wiggins “looked like a JV high school player playing up in college.”
“I look at myself every day in the mirror and it's always obvious that I'm probably the smallest guy on the field. I just play with a chip on my shoulder,” said Wiggins, who is generously listed at 5-foot-10. “Like a lot of fans and other people say, 'He's too small, can't guard so-and-so receiver,' so I just kind of take that, keep that in the back of my head and make plays. The more plays you make, the more people will start believing in you and feeling comfortable with you on the field. I think I'm kind of proving that.”
We're continuing to look at the first quarter of the 2013 college football season today by checking out the effect true freshmen have had. We know that the days of freshmen sitting back and watching are over, and SEC teams have made sure to get the youngsters on the field as quickly as possible.
Who has received the best results from their freshmen through the first four weeks? Who not only has quantity but quality when it comes from the freshmen impact? Take a look:
2. Georgia: The Bulldogs knew they were going to have to get a lot out of their freshman class, especially on the defensive side of the ball. Through the first four weeks of the season, six of Georgia's top 15 tacklers are freshmen: safety Tray Matthews (14), linebacker Leonard Floyd (12), cornerback Brendan Langley (10), safety Quincy Mauger (five), defensive lineman John Taylor (four) and linebacker Reggie Carter (four). The Bulldogs have played 14 true freshmen this season, which ranks third nationally. Ten of them have played on the defensive side of the ball and three of them -- Matthews, Floyd and Langley -- have started. In addition, freshman receiver Reggie Davis has two catches for 134 yards, including a school-record 98-yard touchdown reception against North Texas.
3. Arkansas: The first thing you think about when you see this Razorbacks team is the running game. Alex Collins became the first freshman in SEC history to begin his career with three straight 100-yard rushing games and the first true freshman in the NCAA to record three straight 100-yard rushing games to start his career since Oklahoma’s Adrian Peterson had nine straight in 2004. Collins leads the SEC with 481 rushing yards, is averaging 120.3 yards per game and has been named the SEC Freshman of the Week twice. Tight end Hunter Henry is second on the team with eight catches for 125 yards and a touchdown. Offensive tackle Denver Kirkland grabbed a handful of snaps against Southern Miss, while fellow tackle Dan Skipper blocked a field goal against Rutgers. Cornerback D.J. Dean has received a lot of snaps this fall as well.
4. Tennessee: Fourteen true freshmen and 22 freshmen overall have played for the Vols this season. Three true freshmen have made starts this season: wide receiver Marquez North (four), defensive back Cameron Sutton (four) and wide receiver Josh Smith (two). North, who leads the team with 12 catches for 112 yards, became the first true freshman to start the season opener for Tennessee at receiver since Marsalis Teague in 2009, while Sutton is the first true freshman defensive back to start a season opener since Justin Coleman in 2011. Defensive back Malik Foreman intercepted a pass in his debut against Austin Peay, becoming the first true freshman to record a pick in his Vols debut in the season opener since Dwayne Goodrich in 1996. Defensive back Devaun Swafford recorded a pick-six in Tennessee's loss to Florida last week.
5. LSU: The Tigers have played 14 true freshmen this season, and eight of those are defensive players. Cornerback Tre'Davious White is the only freshman to make a start this year, doing so against Kent State and Auburn. White has 17 tackles on the season, including one for loss, and has also forced a fumble and broken up a pass. Kendell Beckwith has received some good snaps at linebacker and on special teams. He also lines up at defensive end to provide more of a pass-rushing threat on third downs. Defensive lineman Christian LaCouture has seen time in the rotation along the Tigers' defensive line.
- Alabama's secondary was torched earlier this month when it faced Johnny Manziel and Texas A&M. After rotating players against Colorado State, head coach Nick Saban said the competition at cornerback is ongoing.
- Georgia has a young secondary, with two freshmen (Brendan Langley, Tray Matthews) and a sophomore (Josh Harvey-Clemons) in the starting lineup. They say they are ready for their showdown with LSU.
- LSU will embrace the hostility at Georgia when the teams meet this weekend, when the Tigers will play at an opponent's home stadium for the first time this season.
- After sophomore running back Brian Kimbrow had a tirade on Twitter that was apparently about playing time, Vanderbilt coach James Franklin said he has handled the matter internally.
- Ole Miss quarterback Bo Wallace is confident in his offense, telling reporters "we can put points" on Alabama when the teams meet.
- A handful of players from Georgia, Georgia Tech and Northwestern wrote the letters "APU" on their football gear over the weekend to make a statement against the NCAA and for players participating in the Ed O'Bannon lawsuit. The National College Players Association has become the key voice in the movement.
- There were several positives to take away from Texas A&M's win over SMU on Saturday.
- With a lot of success on third down in particular, South Carolina's defense showed improvement in its last game against Vanderbilt, Steve Spurrier said.
- Florida quarterback Tyler Murphy made the most out of his opportunity to play when starter Jeff Driskel went down with an injury.
- Kentucky hasn't beaten Florida in its last 26 tries. That's something coach Mark Stoops believes needs to be talked about, but that it can't be the focal point.
- Tennessee quarterback Nathan Peterman will be out up to four weeks after having surgery on his right hand and Tennessee coach Butch Jones says that for now, Justin Worley is the starter. Jones wants to see his quarterbacks eliminate mistakes.
- Missouri used something Gary Pinkel called a "30 defense" in its victory over Indiana on Saturday.
- Arkansas blew a 17-point lead in its loss to Rutgers on Saturday, but coach Bret Bielema said the Razorbacks must move on with Texas A&M coming to town.
- Auburn receiver Jaylon Denson, who tore the patellar tendon in his left leg and is out for the season, vows to come back stronger.
In a 24-all game and with South Carolina sitting at Georgia's 25-yard line minutes into the third quarter, Harvey-Clemons' fumble recovery ranks among the biggest defensive plays of the game.
“We just watched it again,” Herrera said Monday. “I forgot that he had blitzed and I was like, 'How did he beat everybody over there?' ”
Harvey-Clemons completed his first career start with five tackles and the fumble recovery, but he owned up to plenty of mistakes against the Gamecocks.
“I feel like I didn't have a good game, but I was just glad to be out there with my teammates,” Harvey-Clemons said. “I feel like I've got a lot or work to do myself to get better.”
Of course, he could have been out there a week earlier against Clemson had it not been for a marijuana-related incident in his dorm room over the summer that left him suspended for the opener. Georgia instead started three true freshmen -- Leonard Floyd, Brendan Langley and Tray Matthews -- in the nickelback and secondary spots while Harvey-Clemons, the team's defensive MVP of spring practice, watched from the sidelines in the 38-35 loss.
“It hurt me bad, man,” he said in the locker room after the South Carolina game, marking the first time he had spoken with reporters since the G-Day game. “I had been practicing the whole time in camp and stuff. I knew I had messed up and I let my teammates down. Just seeing that and the fact that we lost, it really just made me a little down on myself, but I feel like with this week and this game, we're just going to get better.”
Improvement might start by improving the pursuit angles he takes toward opposing ball-carriers and generally being in the right place more consistently. At least that's how Bulldogs coach Mark Richt viewed it upon rewatching the South Carolina game.
“He was a little rusty, no doubt,” Richt said. “Our safeties have got to take better angles when it comes to tackling. I think we've got to get better at that, and he's one of those guys. But I think he was just happy to be back playing, and I'm glad he is back.”
Needless to say, so are his defensive teammates, who allowed averages of 34 points and 460.5 yards per game in their first two outings of the season.
Herrera said Harvey-Clemons' hitting and playmaking abilities at outside linebacker and defensive back will come in handy for their young defense as it works to improve down the stretch.
“He's very diverse,” Herrera said of his 6-foot-5, 212-pound teammate. “Like he's so tall and long that you wouldn't think that he could run as good as he does and tackle as good as he does because he's so skinny. But he can make hits.”
That alone is a relief for the young defenders who allowed 34 points and 460.5 yards per game against Clemson and South Carolina, surrendering 6.7 yards per play to the two highly ranked opponents.
“It definitely would have stunk. We probably would have been in full pads every day, hitting,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said of the bye-week practices. “It wouldn't have been a fun environment in Athens for these next two weeks.”
The members of Todd Grantham's defense realize that their shoddy tackling would have been the reason for the extra hitting, just as it was the reason they practiced in full pads twice last week leading up to the South Carolina game. They are simply nowhere near where they need to be if Georgia is to remain in the national championship conversation through the rest of the season.
“We've still got some things to fix,” Jenkins said. “There were still some moments where some guys didn't know what to do. It still wasn't as much as it was last week, but we're just a defense that's coming along and we've just got to fix some small things. I know that's getting repetitive, but I feel like this week was really something that we needed as a defense.”
South Carolina finished with 454 yards of total offense and actually averaged more yards per play than did Georgia -- 7.4 to 7.1 -- but there were a couple of bright spots for the Bulldogs in the second half.
For starters, Amarlo Herrera continued his difference-making play at inside linebacker. A week after notching 12 tackles against Clemson, Herrera made another 12 stops -- none bigger than when he met Gamecocks running back Mike Davis at the goal line on a fourth-down option run and forced a turnover on downs.
“They just came out in a formation that we knew and [South Carolina quarterback Connor Shaw] checked, so I kind of knew by the alignment what play they were going to run,” Herrera said. “So I just ran to the running back.”
Herrera also tracked down Shaw from behind in the third quarter and forced a fumble that Josh Harvey-Clemons recovered at Georgia's 25-yard line.
Because of those two giveaways, the Gamecocks mustered just six points in the second half on Saturday, despite generating 221 yards of offense and averaging 7.9 yards per play in the half.
Some of those yards played out in ugly fashion for the Bulldogs, such as when Davis broke a 75-yard run deep into Georgia territory, setting up a 3-yard touchdown run where he ran straight through tackle attempts by Herrera, Ramik Wilson, Harvey-Clemons and John Taylor. Or when Nick Jones twice burned freshman cornerback Brendan Langley for touchdown catches in the second quarter.
“It's not easy to play corner in this league, or any league for that matter, in college football,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “You're going to get challenged, especially if you're a rookie. And he got challenged. He got beat once or twice, but he hung in there.”
Certainly some of Georgia's early problems were to be expected. With a big group of inexperienced players taking over for 12 major contributors -- most notably NFL first-round picks Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree -- from the 2012 defense, naturally there have been some growing pains.
Langley is a true freshman who lined up against All-American Sammy Watkins and an array of other talented Clemson receivers in his first college game. Other new starters like Leonard Floyd, Harvey-Clemons, Sterling Bailey, Wilson and Tray Matthews intrigue the coaches with their talent, but sometimes frustrate them by not performing as consistently as they'd like.
“We're young and we're learning,” Harvey-Clemons said. “A lot of us -- like me and Corey [Moore] -- this is our first time playing, so once we get together and get some games under us and get that chemistry going, I feel like there will be a lot of trouble for offenses to come."
The open date comes at a good time for the Bulldogs (1-1), allowing them to regroup from as tough a first two weeks as Georgia has ever faced in program history. With a week off followed by a visit from North Texas (1-1) before LSU (2-0) comes to Athens on Sept. 28, Grantham and company can use the rocky first two games as a teaching tool in a low-pressure environment before life gets difficult again.
LSU has diversified its offense this season and will present a bigger challenge than its run-heavy attacks of the past. And Tennessee's and Missouri's offenses will likely try to spread the field and tear holes in Georgia's defensive scheme, as well.
In short, this is a nice break, but the Bulldogs must be better prepared to be on the defensive soon. They know it as well as anyone.
“We find a way to make a play, make a turnover, keep grinding,” Grantham said. “I think that I saw some improvement over last week. I thought our front guys were physically stout at the line of scrimmage. I think we've got to do a better job on the edges in the run game. We've just got to keep working and if we do that, we'll be fine.”
No. 5 Georgia and No. 8 Clemson will end a 10-year hiatus in their historic rivalry Saturday when the Bulldogs visit Death Valley n in one of the most intriguing matchups of opening weekend.
Let’s examine five key elements involved in a game that could impact this season’s BCS championship chase:
Big-play offenses: Las Vegas is predicting two of the nation’s most-prolific offenses to combine for around 70 points on Saturday night. And research provided by ESPN Stats and Information gives us plenty of reasons to see why many analysts expect a high-scoring game between the Bulldogs and Tigers.
Beyond simple scoring and total offense stats, they both ranked among the nation’s top big-play offenses a season ago. Georgia ranked first nationally or tied for first in touchdowns of at least 20 yards (31), 30 yards (22) and 50 yards (12) and led the nation with an average of 7.09 yards per play.
Clemson, meanwhile, led the nation in completions of 25 yards or more (51) and touchdown passes that covered at least 25 yards (20). Clemson’s Tajh Boyd had 11.2 percent of his passes go for completions of at least 25 yards, which was the highest of any quarterback in the country who attempted at least 150 passes.
Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray led the nation in yards per pass attempt (10.1) and percentage of attempts to gain 20 yards or more (16.1).
Both quarterbacks improved their accuracy on passes of 20-plus yards last season, with Murray completing 46 percent of such throws (an increase of 17.3 percent) and Boyd hitting on 51 percent (an increase of 14 percent).
Will Watkins step up?: With Georgia breaking in a largely rebuilt secondary, this game would seem like a prime opportunity for Clemson’s 2011 All-American receiver Sammy Watkins to exploit the Bulldogs’ youth.
Watkins talked a big game about beating Georgia during the offseason, but will he reclaim his spot as the Tigers’ top receiving target after losing that title last fall to DeAndre Hopkins. Watkins was third nationally in all-purpose yards (2,288) in 2011, but totaled fewer than half as many a year later (1,073). His touchdowns-per-touch ratio dropped from 1-in-9.6 to 1-in-17.8, as well.
Clemson quarterbacks targeted Watkins 44 fewer times (from 123 in 2011 to 79 last year) and his catch (82 to 57), receiving yardage (1,219 to 708) and touchdown (12 to three) totals all dropped severely.
Hopkins led the nation with 11 touchdown catches of 25-plus yards last season, so the Tigers desperately need Watkins to live up to the standard he set in 2011 and replace some of the departed star’s production. Watkins is more than capable, posting 11 TD catches of 25-plus yards in his first two seasons as a Tiger.
Pound the run?: An interesting subplot to Saturday’s game is how Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo will attack Clemson’s defense. The Tigers also have some concerns in the secondary -- this on the heels of surrendering 7.32 yards per pass attempt a season ago. But conventional wisdom seems to dictate that Georgia uses its powerful running game -- paced by All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall -- to extend drives and provide time for its defense to rest between series against Clemson’s up-tempo offense.
Both players averaged better than 6 yards per carry last season, due in large part to their capabilities as home-run threats. They combined for 12 runs of 25-plus yards, eight of which went for touchdowns. Gurley alone had 27 carries that went at least 15 yards, which tied for fifth in the FBS.
Clemson ranked 57th nationally against the run last season, surrendering 155.92 yards per game on the ground in Brent Venables’ first season as the Tigers’ defensive coordinator. The Tigers were 71st against the pass at 240.3 ypg.
Murray on the big stage: Fair or unfair, Saturday’s game -- and the upcoming matchups with South Carolina and LSU in September -- will serve as another referendum on Murray’s status as a big-game performer.
The positive sign for Murray is that he has won two of his last three games against opponents that finished the season as a ranked team: Florida and Nebraska last season. Following an atrocious first half against Florida last season, Murray has tossed seven touchdowns against three interceptions in 10 quarters against ranked opponents, including the SEC championship game loss to Alabama.
Fresh-faced defenses: Let’s have some fun with numbers concerning Georgia and Clemson’s defensive depth charts.
After losing 12 key players from last season’s defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham appears set to trot out a large group of newbies. Of the 22 players listed on the Bulldogs’ defensive two-deep in this week’s game notes, 16 of them have never started a college game. Heck, nine of them, including seven true freshmen, have never PLAYED in a college game.
But a number of them -- including outside linebacker Leonard Floyd, defensive lineman John Taylor, safety Tray Matthews and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- could play big roles on Saturday.
Meanwhile, Clemson has some experience issues of its own. Ten of the 22 players on the defensive two-deep have never started and three of them are freshmen. They’re expected to be without injured freshman cornerback Mackensie Alexander, who at No. 4 in the 2013 ESPN 150 was Clemson’s highest-rated signee in its most recent recruiting class.
It’s easily conceivable that Saturday’s outcome could be determined by which team’s young defensive personnel acquits itself more effectively in its first game in leading roles.
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.
“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.”
“Really if you play hard, you’ll end up making a play,” the Georgia outside linebacker said after Tuesday’s practice.
It might not sound like much, but that playing style -- “I’m bringing speed all day, every day,” Floyd said -- has helped him become perhaps Georgia’s fastest-rising freshman during preseason practice. Other Bulldogs might play with a high motor, but Floyd’s consistent effort in practice has been enough for Georgia coach Mark Richt to single him out during a team gathering.
“His head’s still spinning learning stuff, but he’s really impressed me how hard he practices on a daily basis,” Richt said. “… He really stood out to me. He’s been standing out to me for a while.”
The pass-rush specialist quickly made an impression on teammates and coaches with his work at strongside linebacker, to the point that he could steal some playing time from expected starter James DeLoach. In fact, he almost seems to be a lock to contribute on scrimmage downs.
“Floyd’s going to be a good asset to us,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “I think he’ll play a good bit this year, a guy with his size and his frame. He’s quick off the ball and he’s really like his nickname, Flow, because he’s real smooth with his moves and stuff like that.”
Floyd might be the freshman who made the biggest impression in Georgia’s preseason practices, but he’s not the only member of that group. Here are a few others whose names consistently cropped up as impact freshmen in a highly informal poll of Georgia veterans.
Brendan Douglas, running back
Douglas might be the most pleasant preseason surprise on Georgia’s veteran offense.
“He’s just running people over. He hurdled a DB [a diving Shaq Wiggins] last week in the scrimmage. It was an unbelievable play,” senior quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Just a tough kid, and one of our best blocking running backs right now. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there, I don’t care who it is, and knock them right under the chin. So it’s great to see him back there. He’s worked his tail off and he definitely deserves some playing time.”
Douglas has ceded the No. 3 tailback spot to fellow freshman J.J. Green for now after spraining the MCL in his left knee on Monday. But Richt said after Wednesday’s scrimmage that the injury would not require surgery and will not end Douglas’ season.
Reggie Carter, inside linebacker
Carter has continued his upward trajectory from spring practice this August, solidifying a spot behind veteran starters Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson as the season approaches.
Wilson recently said that Carter possesses the quickest hands among the Bulldogs’ inside linebackers and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he has been the most consistent of the four freshmen who arrived in the most recent signing class.
“I’d have to say Reggie’s the guy that’s kind of stood out the most right now,” Grantham said.
Carter tied Herrera for second on the team with three tackles in Wednesday’s final preseason scrimmage -- one behind Wilson. But it seems evident that all three players will fill key roles on Grantham’s defense once the Clemson game arrives.
Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley, cornerbacks
These days, you rarely hear one of the freshman cornerbacks mentioned without the other’s name following shortly thereafter. But that’s a good thing, as both of them have emerged as consistent playmakers in the injury-depleted secondary.
They both intercepted passes in each of the last two team scrimmages -- with Wiggins returning one for a touchdown in Wednesday night’s practice game and Langley taking one to the house the previous week.
Although the freshman duo has no chance of taking junior cornerback Damian Swann’s job and will face heavy competition for playing time from sophomore Sheldon Dawson, their performances have impressed the coaches.
“I thought our young guys were challenged [in the second scrimmage] a little bit and made some plays,” Grantham said. “I see those guys getting better. Langley’s a guy that continues to improve. He’s a very conscientious guy.”
As for Wiggins, take his fellow freshman’s word concerning his play thus far in August.
“We all know he’s a feisty little dude,” Langley said. “He’s making plays almost every play. Like I said, he’s real feisty, he’s a great cover corner. He’s come up and making big plays in the running game, so you can’t really ask for more.”
Reggie Davis, wide receiver
If there was any question whether Davis might redshirt this season because of Georgia’s impressive depth at receiver, it seemed to be answered on Wednesday. He played with the regulars, not the scout team, and ranked among the team’s leading receivers with two catches for 29 yards.
“He might play a lot this year. He’s a speed demon,” Murray said of the former high school track star. “He’s I think the fastest guy in our receiving corps and we have some speed over there, and he’s worked his tail off to earn his position, learn the plays, has definitely opened a lot of eyes out there with what he’s able to do with his route-running ability.”
Georgia has multiple reliable options at receiver, including Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley. But Davis’ speed and consistent hands have apparently helped him win some playing time.
“In the next two years, he’s probably going to be one of the best players here. Hands down,” Mitchell said. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better. That’s where it starts.”
The Bulldogs simulated the second half of their Aug. 31 opener against Clemson and Georgia coach Mark Richt gave his scout team a 28-0 lead on the regulars before play even began. Richt further helped the scout team -- or “Clemson” -- with timely free first downs and other forms of assistance, but “Georgia” rallied to cut the Clemson lead to 41-35 entering the scrimmage’s final minutes.
That’s when senior quarterback Aaron Murray -- who finished 11-for-14 for 194 yards, three touchdowns and no interceptions -- re-entered the game and led Georgia on a game-winning drive of approximately 60 yards, capping it with a game-tying touchdown pass to tight end Arthur Lynch.
The identity of the place-kicker who booted the game-winning extra point? That will remain anonymous, Richt said.
“I can’t tell you,” said Richt, who has not announced whether last year’s kicker, Marshall Morgan, will face a suspension following an offseason arrest. “Secret stuff.”
Nonetheless, Georgia’s coach said he was pleased with what his team accomplished in Wednesday’s practice game. The veterans’ offense showed off some balance with 17 running plays -- freshman J.J. Green rushed for 62 yards and fullback Quayvon Hicks scored two touchdowns -- and 21 passes.
Murray tossed touchdowns to Lynch, Keith Marshall and Malcolm Mitchell and 10 “Georgia” players caught at least one pass.
All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley did not carry the ball, Richt said, because “we’ve seen enough of him.”
On the defensive side, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and inside linebacker Ramik Wilson tied for the team lead with four tackles apiece. Jenkins had a sack and Wilson a tackle for a loss.
Freshman cornerbacks Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley both intercepted passes, with Wiggins returning his 17 yards for a touchdown. Both freshmen intercepted passes in last Wednesday’s scrimmage as well, with Langley returning one for a score.
“Those guys, they’re getting some reps with the varsity and making plays, which is good,” Richt said of the two freshmen in his injury-depleted secondary. “They do have good ball skills, very good hands.”
Among other notable defensive players, Josh Dawson forced a fumble, Damian Swann broke up a pass and Reggie Carter and Amarlo Herrera both had three tackles, with Herrera notching one for a three-yard loss.
Richt said the “Georgia” defense surrendered one touchdown off a legitimate drive without his assistance, but also forced “Clemson” to attempt field goals on two occasions when he gave the scout team free first downs within field-goal range.
“We got done what we wanted to get done,” Richt said. “We had a lot of live kicking situations. We had a lot of situations that we needed to see to transition from a kicking to a scrimmage play back to a kicking play. I thought we did a pretty good job, really.”
The Bulldogs will hold another scrimmage-like practice on Thursday where they will work more on kicking-game scenarios and a few other situational exercises like short-yardage and goal-line plays in preparation for the real Clemson game next Saturday.
But for the most part, Richt said the coaches have determined who will make the trip to Clemson and how those players might be utilized on Aug. 31 -- with some minor lineup tweaking still a possibility once the staff reviews tape of Wednesday’s practice game.
“We have a preliminary list, but we have to re-evaluate it here in the next day or two,” Richt said.
Richt got exactly the conditions and energy level from the team that he was hoping for in Wednesday’s second scrimmage of the preseason -- a marked difference from the Bulldogs’ listless effort a week ago.
“I thought it would be a good idea to do it this week because I just wanted it to be a nice, cool night, I wanted everybody to be well-rested and I just wanted to see a lot of energy out there,” Richt said. “It was like night and day from the first scrimmage as far as just the energy level out there.”
Georgia’s coaches got what they expected from their starting units, as well, with those groups mostly having their way against the backups in traditional series and situational scenarios.
“When you scrimmage like this and you go ones versus twos, you hope that your No. 1 offense is going to have a pretty good go against your No. 2 defense and vice versa. And that’s about how it’s gone,” Richt said. “If your second offense was just thrashing your No. 1 defense, then you’ve got a really, really serious problem. But that’s not the case. I thought both No. 1 units played pretty good.”
Several of Richt’s assistant coaches said recently that they would begin narrowing the field of candidates for playing time after Wednesday’s scrimmage so that they would have defined roles when they hold their third and final scrimmage next Wednesday. Richt said the coaches would grade film of the scrimmage within the next 24 hours, but their personnel decisions will likely take at least a few days.
“It’ll be maybe a day or two before we start trying to figure out ... and it won’t be exact until probably next Wednesday,” Richt said. “I would think by next Wednesday when we have that practice game, we’ll have a really good idea of our lineup.”
As for statistics, there were no particularly eye-catching numbers on Wednesday -- unlike last week’s scrimmage, when starting quarterback Aaron Murray threw three interceptions. Murray bounced back to go 14-for-18 for 173 yards, one touchdown and one interception on Wednesday, with backup Hutson Mason finishing 9-for-19 for 107 yards, one touchdown and one interception.
All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley was the offensive star of the evening, rushing five times for 33 yards and two touchdowns and adding three receptions for another 72 yards. Tailback Keith Marshall had six carries for 39 yards and freshman Brendan Douglas added seven rushes for 50 yards and two catches for another 31 yards.
“[Douglas] was very impressive today,” Richt said. “He ran the ball well, he ran with power, he ran with some vision, he continued to pass [block] pretty good. He’s not perfect in that area.”
Blake Tibbs and Michael Bennett caught the two touchdown passes and Malcolm Mitchell led the receivers with four catches for 58 yards.
Josh Harvey-Clemons, suspended for the opener at Clemson, led the defense with seven tackles and three pass breakups. Amarlo Herrera had five tackles and two pass breakups, while T.J. Stripling, Connor Norman, Garrison Smith and Leonard Floyd all had four stops. Floyd also made a tackle for a loss and would have recorded a sack, Richt said, if not for being blatantly held by an offensive tackle.
Defensive end Toby Johnson recorded the one official sack.
Freshman cornerbacks Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley both made interceptions, with Langley returning his interception 48 yards for a touchdown. Richt said Langley also broke up a pass at the goal line to prevent a touchdown.
The two freshmen are not just competing to be the backups at cornerback, Richt said, they’re competing with Sheldon Dawson to win a starting job alongside junior Damian Swann.
“I’d say they’re all still competing, other than Swanny’s going to be in there,” Richt said. “But who the other starter will be, it’s just a matter of watching what happened in this scrimmage and what happens between now and next Wednesday, probably.”
Kennar Johnson and Lucas Redd also intercepted passes.
The Bulldogs are still contending with a number of injuries, as 15 players appeared on Wednesday’s injury report -- including safeties Tray Matthews (shoulder/hamstring), Corey Moore (knee sprain), Shaquille Fluker (illness), Marc Deas (elbow sprain) and Paris Bostick (foot surgery).
Nose guard Chris Mayes (concussion), linebackers Tim Kimbrough (knee sprain) and Chase Vasser (ankle sprain), receivers Reggie Davis (knee sprain), Rhett McGowan (ankle sprain) and Rantavious Wooten (hamstring strain), tailback A.J. Turman (knee/ankle) and tight end Jay Rome (ankle sprain) were also sidelined.
The good injury news, Richt said, was that he did not believe the team suffered any new injuries during the scrimmage.
“It was a good day. No one was banged up today,” Richt said. “Sometimes the next day you hear something, but today Ron [Courson, Georgia’s director of sports medicine] came to me and said everything looked good, so that’s a blessing.”
But Georgia’s coach has stepped away from that conservative approach somewhat in recent seasons. Today, if a need exists and a new Bulldog is capable of addressing it, Richt’s coaching staff is more than willing to allow him to play a leading role -- with players like tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, receiver Malcolm Mitchell, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and former safety Alec Ogletree making big impacts as true freshmen.
That philosophy will remain evident this fall, particularly on Todd Grantham’s defense which must replace 12 significant contributors. Several of those replacements will be brand-new Bulldogs, while additional reserve roles will also go to freshmen and junior college transfers who impress the coaches over the next few weeks.
For the most part, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s starting lineup is in solid shape as the Bulldogs prepare to open preseason camp on Thursday. There are questions about how the offensive line rotation will shape up and which players will seize roles at receiver and tailback, but most of the key pieces return from last season’s high-scoring offense.
It’s entirely possible, though, that junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph and freshmen Tramel Terry and J.J. Green will contribute immediately at receiver. And it’s entirely likely that either A.J. Turman or Brendan Douglas, if not both, will carve out a role behind Gurley and Marshall at tailback.
“I’d like to have a third and a fourth tailback. ... I do like we got some bigger guys in Douglas and Turman,” Bobo said. “We’ve got to get those guys ready -- get them on special teams, get them playing, get them confidence, treat them like we treated Gurley and Marshall last year because we’re planning on playing them.”
Grantham’s defense is where the greatest concentration of newcomers will be found this fall, however. There are openings on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary that will almost certainly go to a freshman or juco transfer.
Freshman safety Tray Matthews, who enrolled in January, was the talk of Georgia’s spring practices thanks to a number of big hits. But he’s far from the only new Bulldog who will be up for strong consideration throughout August as the coaching staff attempts to determine which players will contribute in the fall.
Up front, juco transfers Chris Mayes and Toby Johnson and prep school transfer John Atkins all figure to play a role. The No. 4 overall prospect on ESPN’s Junior College 100, Johnson is fully recovered from last fall’s knee surgery and has been working out without limitation this summer alongside his new teammates.
“He’s ready. He’s doing everything we’re doing,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “He looks he’s 100 percent to me.”
Inside linebacker Reggie Carter also made a mark in spring practice and now has company from summer arrivals Johnny O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough, as well as Shaun McGee, who Grantham said will work at strongside and inside linebacker during camp.
And the secondary will be littered with new faces, including juco transfers Shaq Fluker and Kennar Johnson and freshmen Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley. Grantham mentioned Fluker as a candidate to play immediately at strong safety and said Wiggins and Langley will receive similar consideration at cornerback.
Tight end Arthur Lynch, for one, said the 6-foot-1 Langley has been impressive in the Bulldogs’ summer passing sessions.
“I think Langley’s a guy that can be pretty good,” Lynch said. “He’s very athletic and he runs like a deer. He can run for days and he’s very fast.”
Richt’s staff recruited the 31 newcomers with the knowledge that there would be numerous spots to fill this year, and that many of the signees needed to be prepared to play right away. That was the purpose of bringing in a program-high 13 players in January so they could participate in offseason conditioning and spring practices, and it was a factor even with signees who couldn’t arrive on campus until the summer.
They’ll soon get their chance to crack the rotation -- and don’t be surprised if on Aug. 31, a significant number of them are playing scrimmage downs and on special teams in the Bulldogs’ opener against Clemson.
“Anytime you can go against quality people in practice, it allows you to become better and truthfully it allows you to find out where you are,” Grantham said. “It allows you to find out what your strengths are and maybe what the things are you need to work on.”
10 NEWCOMERS TO WATCH
John Atkins, nose guard
Thomson, Ga./Hargrave Military
ESPN ranking: Four stars, Was No. 11 DT when he initially signed with Georgia in 2012
Breakdown: Atkins enrolled in January after spending last fall at Hargrave and ended spring practice as the Bulldogs’ No. 3 nose guard. He’ll compete with Michael Thornton and a fellow newcomer -- juco transfer Chris Mayes -- for a chance to contribute in the middle of the defensive line.
1. Tray Matthews: The most obvious choice on the list, Matthews enrolled in January, was a breakout performer during spring practice and put himself in position to start at free safety by the end of the spring. The big hitter with solid coverage skills is a lock to contribute and could be one of the SEC’s top freshmen this fall.
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