Georgia Bulldogs: Quincy Mauger

Today, we continue our break down of each position group in the SEC by looking at an area of defense that has a lot to prove after last season.

We’re talking, of course, about the secondaries.

Maybe it was that they were young and inexperienced. Maybe it was a case of so many quarterbacks being the opposite. But whatever it was, the league’s defensive backs should have a chip on their shoulder after the beating they took in 2013.

With that said, let’s dig into which programs are poised to rebound and sport the best secondaries in the league.

Secondary position rankings

[+] EnlargeCody Prewitt
Michael Chang/Getty ImagesOle Miss safety Cody Prewitt is the leader of an experienced, talented Rebels secondary.
1. Ole Miss: Talent and experience. Both are worth their weight in gold, and Ole Miss has loads of each. We’re probably not giving anything away when we say that both Cody Prewitt and Tony Conner will make the list of the league’s top 10 safeties later today. Prewitt led the league in interceptions last season, and Conner, a former four-star recruit, has barely scratched the surface on what he can do. Trae Elston and Senquez Golson, meanwhile, are potential impact players, along with Mike Hilton and Derrick Jones. If C.J. Hampton lives up to the hype, he could be a true freshman to keep an eye on.

2. Florida: The Gators have plenty of issues. Defensive back is not one of them, however. Despite losing Cody Riggs to transfer and Loucheiz Purifoy, Jaylen Watkins and Marcus Roberson to the NFL, Florida has plenty of talent remaining in the secondary. Only a sophomore, Vernon Hargreaves III is arguably the best corner in the SEC. If either Jalen Tabor or Duke Dawson emerges opposite him, you’re talking about a good one-two punch. And with three experienced safeties to lean on -- Jabari Gorman, Marcus Maye and Brian Poole -- coach Will Muschamp should like what he sees from the secondary as a whole.

3. LSU: Getting Jalen Mills to safety would have been huge. But with his status up in the air, LSU must move on. It's still DBU -- Defensive Back University -- and thankfully for coach Les Miles, he’s got plenty more to work with. Ronald Martin has experience at safety, along with Corey Thompson, who missed the spring with an injury. At corner, LSU is in good shape with Tre'Davious White and Rashard Robinson in position to start, not to mention Jalen Collins, a former Freshman All-SEC choice in 2012. And since this is LSU and someone always emerges from nowhere, be sure to keep an eye on Jamal Adams. The former No. 2-rated safety in the ESPN 300 didn't enroll early but should have every chance to play as a true freshman. If Mills is able to return and some the young talent on LSU's roster develops as expected, the Tigers could have an argument for the top secondary in the league.

4. Alabama: Talent and experience. Alabama has one but not the other, and you can probably guess which. Ha Ha Clinton-Dix, Vinnie Sunseri and Deion Belue are all gone. That fourth spot in the secondary? It was never settled to begin with. Getting Landon Collins back at safety, however, is huge, as the former five-star prospect has All-SEC potential. But who starts opposite him is up in the air with Nick Perry coming off an injury, Jarrick Williams entrenched at nickel corner/star and Laurence "Hootie" Jones early in his development. At corner, Alabama’s hopes are pinned to two freshmen -- Tony Brown and Marlon Humphrey -- along with a slew of unproven prospects such as Maurice Smith, Jonathan Cook and Bradley Sylve.

5. Mississippi State: Dan Mullen loves his defense heading into this season, and considering what he has at defensive back it’s easy to see why. The Bulldogs are in the enviable position of having five legitimate SEC-caliber players at both safety and cornerback. Jamerson Love and Taveze Calhoun are two rock-solid corners, and Will Redmond is a good third off the bench. Kendrick Market and Deontay Evans might start at safety today, but Jay Hughes is back from injury and Justin Cox could very well be the most talented of the bunch after transitioning from corner this spring.

6. Auburn: The Tigers secondary was atrocious for most of last season, surrendering 260.2 passing yards per game through Jan. 1 (No. 104 nationally). Really, it wasn’t until the BCS title game that we saw some fight out of them. So was that first half against Florida State a mirage or a glimpse of the future? Defensive coordinator Ellis Johnson has to hope it’s the latter. With Jonathon Mincy at corner, Jermaine Whitehead at safety and Robenson Therezie playing the star, he’s got some experienced parts to build around. Meanwhile, juco transfer Derrick Moncrief has the look of an impact player at safety. If Joshua Holsey is back to 100 percent, Johnson will have a better deck of cards to play with than last season.

7. Georgia: The good news is that the two main culprits from last season’s heartbreaking loss to Auburn -- Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons -- are gone. The bad news is that those same players were expected to start this season. Throw in the loss of Shaq Wiggins and you’re looking at Georgia, under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, essentially starting over in the secondary. It’s not all bad, though. There might not be much depth at cornerback, but veteran Damian Swann is a good place to start. And the same can be said of safety, where Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger have some experience.

8. Tennessee: The Volunteers have one of the deeper secondaries in the SEC, returning all four starters, but it’s a group that received its fair share of criticism last season after giving up 283 yards per game. There’s still talent back there, though, with safety Brian Randolph and cornerback Cameron Sutton. In particular, Randolph led the team in interceptions (4) and finished second in tackles (75), and though he missed the majority of spring due to injury, he’s expected back for fall camp. At cornerback, freshman Emmanuel Moseley arrived in January and could make a push for playing time after a strong spring.

9. South Carolina: You have to fear the unknown if you’re a Gamecocks fan. Brison Williams is a solid safety, but both of your starting corners from last season -- Victor Hampton and Jimmy Legree -- are gone, and the senior you expected to be starting by now, Kadetrix Marcus, is trailing sophomore Chaz Elder on the depth chart. Rico McWilliams, the corner with the most returning experience, isn’t even a sure thing to start. A redshirt freshman, Ali Groves, is in line to start at the second cornerback spot, but keep an eye on two talented true freshmen who could play early: Wesley Green and Chris Lammons.

[+] EnlargeDeshazor Everett
AP Photo/Bob LeveyDeshazor Everett has all-conference potential, but the Texas A&M secondary is filled with question marks.
10. Texas A&M: The Aggies return plenty of experience in the secondary this season. That's good in the sense that they have a defensive backfield with a lot of SEC football under its belt but make no mistake, this unit has a lot of room for improvement. Cornerback Deshazor Everett is the best player of the group and could be headed for an all-conference season, while junior corner De'Vante Harris continues to grow as a player. The safeties -- Howard Matthews, Floyd Raven and Clay Honeycutt -- must show improvement this season after last year's performance. The nickel position is open and a number of candidates could step in, including sophomore Noel Ellis or junior Devonta Burns.

11. Missouri: Much of the attention has been paid to reloading on the defensive line after the departures of Kony Ealy and Michael Sam, but Missouri should be fine there. The real concern, however, is the secondary, as three of last year’s starters (E.J. Gaines, Randy Ponder and Matt White) are gone. Getting Braylon Webb back at safety is huge, but he’ll need help. Ian Simon and Duron Singleton should vie for the second safety spot, and John Gibson and Aarion Penton are two of the more experienced options at corner. The wild card in all of this, though, is an incoming class that featured seven defensive backs.

12. Kentucky: With two of the better pass rushers in the league, one would think that Kentucky could force the opposing quarterback into throwing some interceptions. That didn’t happen last season. The Wildcats were dead last in the SEC with just three interceptions. Mark Stoops and his staff are hoping to turn that around this season, and they have plenty of capable bodies to work with on the back end. All four starters are back, five if you include nickel back Blake McClain -- who was third on the team in tackles as a freshman -- and junior college transfer A.J. Stamps might be the most talented defensive back on the roster.

13. Arkansas: Depth is going to be a concern for new secondary coach Clay Jennings, who is stressing turnovers this spring after the Razorbacks came in dead last in that category in the SEC in 2013. But in terms of front-line starters, he’s got some experience to work with, as every projected starter at safety and corner is a junior or senior. The most reliable of the bunch is safety Alan Turner, who led the team in tackles last season and should continue to play a pivotal role on defense. Another one to watch is cornerback Tevin Mitchell. It wasn’t that long ago that the 6-foot senior was an SEC All-Freshman selection. For Arkansas to take the next step, he’ll need to fulfill the early promise of his career.

14. Vanderbilt: The Commodores were spoiled last season with four seniors starting in the secondary. You don’t replace the talent and experience of an Andre Hal and a Kenny Ladler overnight. And you certainly will have a hard time doing so when the entire coaching staff has changed. But such is new head coach Derek Mason’s task. The good news for him is that the cupboard wasn’t left entirely bare as the entire second string of the secondary -- Paris Head, Jahmel McIntosh, Andrew Williamson and Torren McGaster -- returns after having played in a combined 50 games last season.

Second-year stars: Georgia

June, 6, 2014
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Georgia has gotten very mixed results from its 2013 class so far -- a couple of transfers, a dismissal, a few position changes and a surprisingly sudden impact from an under-the-radar linebacker recruit.

For most players the transition from high school to college takes a little time, and it’s not until Year 2 that they truly shine. With that in mind, we’re taking a look at the best candidates for second-year stardom in the conference -- the players who didn’t quite hit the big time as true freshmen but are poised for a breakthrough in 2014.

The Bulldogs are next up in our second-year stars series.

Class recap: Mark Richt has been incredibly consistent on the recruiting trail. The 10th-ranked class in the nation in 2013 gave him a top-15 ranking in eight straight years. Georgia landed 21 four-star prospects, including 14 in the ESPN 300, as part of a class that totaled 33 signees. The group's biggest impact in 2013 was in providing depth at a number of key spots, but there were some standouts and fast starters. Unfortunately, some of the freshmen who played the most are no longer wearing red and black. Safety Tray Matthews, who started six games, was dismissed on Tuesday. And Shaq Wiggins, who made eight starts at cornerback, transferred in May.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMILeonard Floyd shined rushing off the edge last season and could break out even more in Jeremy Pruitt's defense.
Second-year star: OLB Leonard Floyd (6-foot-4, 220 pounds)

Recruiting stock: A four-star prospect, Floyd originally signed with UGA as part of its 2012 class. But he failed to meet academic requirements and spent one year at Hargrave Military Academy.

2013 in review: Floyd surprised everyone with a strong preseason camp. He played in every game, making eight starts at outside linebacker. He finished seventh on the team with 55 tackles, but where Floyd really shined was in providing an edge rush and leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks. For an athlete who had only one year of experience in a 3-4 defense, he made a remarkable transition and earned a spot on the SEC's all-freshman team.

2014 potential: New defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt tried to recruit Floyd to Alabama a couple of years ago and has tweaked Georgia's defense in a way that allows Floyd to concentrate on rushing the passer from the strong-side linebacker and defensive end positions. The result, Floyd said, is less thinking and more sacking. Freed of most coverage responsibilities, he should be able to use his quickness and long arms to wreak havoc in opposing backfields.

Also watch out for: Pruitt brought a clean slate, which is good news for sophomore J.J. Green, a former three-star recruit who shined as a backup running back last season, averaging 5.6 yards per carry. A natural cornerback who can also play safety, Green moved to defense in the spring and looks poised to start as UGA's fifth DB in the star, or nickelback, position. Another three-star prospect who contributed as a true freshman was safety Quincy Mauger, who started seven games and appeared to pass Matthews on the spring depth chart. Mauger had 57 tackles, which tied for the team lead among defensive backs. On offense, speedster Reggie Davis showed promise at wide receiver and as a kick returner.
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.
We're closing in on the start of spring practice at Georgia, so this week let's take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

We begin Monday with the safeties, who struggled for much of last season and lost a starter when coach Mark Richt kicked Josh Harvey-Clemons off the team last month. With all of that -- plus the addition of a new position coach in Jeremy Pruitt -- in mind, it should be an interesting spring for the defensive backs in general. But let's take a closer look at the safeties:

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
AP Photo/John BazemoreTray Matthews (28) and Corey Moore (39) played significant roles last season but will need to find more consistency in 2014.
Returning starters: Harvey-Clemons (11 starts, 66 tackles, five tackles for a loss, three fumble recoveries in 2013) was the only player one might call a regular starter at safety, although the Bulldogs return three players who started at points in 2013: Corey Moore (seven starts, 35 tackles, three TFLs), Quincy Mauger (seven starts, 57 tackles) and Tray Matthews (six starts, 36 tackles).

Departures: Harvey-Clemons and Connor Norman (two starts, 24 tackles), also one of the Bulldogs' top special teams players, are the two most significant departures.

Returning reserves: Since they were all part-time starters, Moore, Mauger and Matthews were also part-time reserves in 2013. They all have a decent shot at seizing major playing time this fall, although it's difficult to predict a pecking order at this point. Moore is the only senior in the mix, while Mauger and the oft-injured Matthews both played as true freshmen after enrolling in January.

Newcomers: As we discussed last week, redshirt freshman Tramel Terry might be a player to watch here. One of the top athletes in the 2013 ESPN recruit rankings, Terry practiced throughout the regular season as a wide receiver, only to shift to safety during bowl practice. If that move sticks, he could make this competition more interesting this spring by making a quick adjustment at his new position. The Bulldogs signed two freshmen who could contribute at safety once they arrive on campus, although Georgia has yet to officially specify a position for either player. The roster lists Dominick Sanders as an athlete and Shaquille Jones as a defensive back.

What to watch: Terry's grasp of the defensive scheme will probably be the top storyline if he stays at safety. The Bulldogs' official roster now lists him at the position. Otherwise, the Bulldogs simply need to develop some consistency here. Moore did a decent job with his first significant dose of playing time, and Mauger and Matthews were OK at times. But each player also found himself out of position or otherwise beaten far too often, which led to repeated back-end breakdowns for Georgia's defense. Now that Harvey-Clemons is also out of the picture, the starting jobs look like they're up for grabs. It will essentially be Year 2 for the three part-time starters from last year, which often leads to a season of significant progress. Bulldogs fans certainly hope that will be the case with this bunch after a rocky 2013.

Players to watch: Tramel Terry

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With spring practice still a few weeks away, this week we'll discuss five players to watch once the Bulldogs open workouts on March 18.

We discussed wide receiver Jonathon Rumph, offensive guard Brandon Kublanow, defensive lineman Toby Johnson and offensive tackles John Theus and Kolton Houston in the first four installments. Today, we conclude the series with a converted wide receiver who could play a key role in the secondary this fall.

[+] EnlargeTramel Terry
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTramel Terry took a redshirt last season and figures into Georgia's plans at safety.
Tramel Terry (Safety, redshirt freshman)

2013 review: Although he enrolled at Georgia last January and hoped to contribute as a true freshman, a torn ACL that Terry suffered in a postseason all-star game did not heal in time for him to play. He complained during preseason practice about a lack of mobility because of the brace on his knee and worked out with the scout team throughout the fall. Then came a twist during bowl practice, when Terry shifted from wide receiver to safety -- a move that coach Mark Richt said might stick beyond the bowl-season experiment.

Why spring is important: Let's operate under the assumption that Terry remains in the secondary, particularly after Richt's recent dismissal of starting safety Josh Harvey-Clemons. Terry played the position a bit in high school, but he played lots of positions -- hence his ranking as ESPN's No. 9 athlete in the 2013 signing class. He also contributed at running back and wide receiver in high school. He has never focused solely on safety so this will be a prime learning opportunity. The dynamic athleticism that made him one of ESPN's Top 100 recruits last year could help him become a useful defensive back, but he's a long way from stardom right now. He needs to have a productive spring if that is to be an attainable goal this fall.

Best case/worst case: Georgia's safeties already were on shaky ground even before Harvey-Clemons' dismissal. The back end of the Bulldogs' defense was inconsistent for much of last season and didn't look much better at the end of the year than it did at the beginning. Sure, Corey Moore, Quincy Mauger and Tray Matthews -- all of whom were part-time starters last year -- are back. But they weren't good enough to keep Terry, and other players, from jumping into the mix if he impresses new defensive coordinator and defensive backs coach Jeremy Pruitt this spring. Maybe Terry will do that and win playing time or even a starting spot. A more reasonable expectation might be for Terry to learn more about the job during the spring and summer, start contributing on special teams early in the fall and eventually work his way into the rotation on scrimmage downs. It's too early to make a prediction on which of those outcomes is more likely, but we should have a better idea what might happen after spring practice.
Georgia announced the dismissal of Josh Harvey-Clemons on Tuesday with a two-sentence press release.

[+] EnlargeHarvey-Clemons
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesJosh Harvey-Clemons let a big opportunity get away after being dismissed from Georgia.
No “We wish him well” quote from Mark Richt. No olive branch for a player who was one of the Bulldogs' most-coveted signees in a strong 2012 recruiting class.

This was goodbye and good riddance, which is a genuine shame.

Nobody is happy to see a player's refusal to follow the rules result in his unceremonious exit from a program. This is somebody's life, and now it's in turmoil after rumors swirled for a couple of weeks about his status on the team. As in the case of another recent five-star Bulldog who departed Athens too early -- tailback Isaiah Crowell, the SEC’s 2011Freshman of the Year whose arrest led to his dismissal before the next season -- this feels particularly galling when that player seems to be wasting such promise.

This kind of reaction wasn't limited to fans and media members after Georgia's announcement. Take what 2013 senior tight end Arthur Lynch tweeted in response to the news: “Just to be clear, those who decide not to do it the RIGHT way do not deserve to don the Red & Black. It is a privilege, not a right.”

Harvey-Clemons is far from the first Georgia player to run afoul of the program's substance policy -- assuming such a violation was the last straw here, as in the previous suspensions involving the rising junior safety -- and he won't be the last. The program's strict rules regarding drug and alcohol issues mean that Richt consistently deals with suspensions related to substance problems.

Whatever the reason for Harvey-Clemons' departure, it is clear that Richt has had enough. He certainly wouldn't kick one his most talented players off the team, when the Bulldogs' shaky defense could certainly use all the help it can get, unless Harvey-Clemons left him no other option.

Harvey-Clemons will almost certainly land somewhere else -- he's too talented for this to be the end of his career -- but he will carry this label from now on. Whenever someone searches for his name on Google. At his next college stop. Whenever NFL teams evaluate his readiness to become a reliable professional.

He clearly wasn't a reliable college player, getting himself suspended at least twice before Tuesday's announcement. And that lack of reliability leaves Georgia in a lurch at one of its thinnest positions. The Bulldogs struggled at safety a season ago and now players like Tray Matthews, Tramel Terry, Quincy Mauger and Corey Moore face even more pressure to perform after a veteran who started 11 games last season has unexpectedly left the team.

Perhaps this is for the best in the long term, since Harvey-Clemons' absences and injuries to other safeties created continuity issues that impacted Georgia's secondary for much of last season. Perhaps starting fresh and knowing who will be available allows new defensive coordinator and secondary coach Jeremy Pruitt to better prepare his defensive backs this fall.

For now, though, this feels like a sad day -- one where someone who could have become a Georgia great instead became another castoff because he couldn't get his act together. It's a difficult lesson for Harvey-Clemons to learn just two days before his 20th birthday, but here's hoping that Richt's actions on Tuesday caused his message to finally resonate and that Harvey-Clemons takes better advantage of his second chance than he did with the opportunity he just squandered.

UGA position groups to improve: No. 2

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Georgia doesn't open spring practice until March 18, so we'll use the next few weeks to look ahead to those all-important workouts and preview what to watch once the Bulldogs get started.

Today we continue a series where we examine five position groups with room to improve. After touching on the inside linebackers, offensive line and outside linebackers, today we focus on the safeties, who were hit hard by injuries and struggled throughout the 2013 season.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsIf he stays healthy, former ESPN 300 prospect Tray Matthews could have a big 2014 season for the Bulldogs.
2. Safety

Battling for No. 1: Even before last season started, Georgia contended with a number of injuries at safety that might have set back the group for the entire fall. The most noticeable issue was that freshman Tray Matthews -- who made a big impact during spring practice -- simply couldn't stay healthy. He started six games but missed another five games due to an assortment of health issues. Meanwhile, Josh Harvey-Clemons was suspended for the first and last games of the season and is facing a three-game punishment to open this fall. His suspension and the departure of senior Connor Norman leaves the regulars from last season's beleaguered safety group, Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger, as the other most likely contributors at safety when the season opens.

Strength in numbers: An interesting development during bowl practice was that redshirting freshman Tramel Terry shifted to safety. Georgia's coaches said at the time that they thought the converted wide receiver would stick at the new position, so he might be a player to watch in the competition this spring. As one of the most coveted athletes in the Bulldogs' 2013 signing class, Terry could help a group that was responsible for too many busted assignments last fall. Otherwise, the four previously listed players should handle most of the snaps at the back end of the defense and simply must do a more effective job. The play we all remember was Auburn's last-minute touchdown bomb where both Matthews and Harvey-Clemons failed to make what should have been a simple knockdown. Unfortunately for the young safeties, that breakdown explains what was happening at that position throughout the fall.

New on the scene: Georgia didn't sign anyone specifically listed as a safety in its 2014 class although at 6-foot-2, defensive back Shaquille Jones has the frame to play the position if necessary. Likewise, Dominick Sanders -- whom Georgia listed as a receiver/defensive back/athlete on signing day -- could play safety if needed. The younger brother of former Bulldog Chris Sanders is capable of playing multiple positions in college, although safety or cornerback seem like the most likely possible destinations.
Georgia has another top-10 class lined up for national signing day, but its final ranking next week could rise or fall depending on how the Bulldogs finish within their own state -- particularly whether they land their top remaining target, Lorenzo Carter.

As it stands, the Bulldogs have commitments from two of the top six players from Georgia, but that's it among the Peach State's collection of elite prospects. Heavily recruited players such as linebacker Raekwon McMillan (Ohio State) and quarterback Deshaun Watson (Clemson) were among those who checked out Georgia before committing elsewhere.

Mark Richt's staff still has a chance to finish on a strong note, however.

[+] EnlargeLorenzo Carter
Miller Safrit/ESPNLorenzo Carter is the top remaining recruiting target for Georgia.
The Bulldogs seem to be in good shape to land five-star defensive end Carter (ESPN's No. 14 overall prospect and No. 3 player at his position). Other targets such as ESPN 300 prospect Wesley Green (No. 120 overall, No. 13 cornerback, uncommitted), Bryson Allen-Williams (No. 162 overall, No. 10 outside linebacker, committed to South Carolina) and Andrew Williams (No. 174 overall, No. 17 defensive end, uncommitted) are among those lurking as possible final members of the class.

Otherwise, this recruiting class -- one that could be slightly smaller than normal -- adequately addresses Georgia's immediate needs. Let's look at how Georgia addressed some of those positions:

Secondary: Georgia's weakest position segment last season could use some immediate help -- and it will get it in cornerbacks Shattle Fenteng (No. 3 overall prospect, top cornerback on ESPN's Junior College 50) and Malkom Parrish (No. 77 overall, No. 10 athlete). Georgia recently added three-star athlete Dominick Sanders at corner. Green -- who is scheduled to join Carter and others on a visit to Athens this weekend -- and three-star athletes T.J. Harrell and Tavon Ross remain as targets.

The possible shortcoming here is that safety was an inconsistent position for Georgia last season and the Bulldogs have only three-star prospect Kendall Gant lined up so far.

With Josh Harvey-Clemons suspended to open the season, senior Corey Moore, rising sophomore Quincy Mauger and oft-injured Tray Matthews might be the only early options, but keep an eye on Harrell and Ross between now and signing day.

Running back: With Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall entering their third seasons on campus, Georgia needed insurance policies at tailback.

The Bulldogs locked that up in a big way with the current headliners in this class, Sony Michel (No. 19 overall, No. 2 running back) and Nick Chubb (No. 63 overall, No. 7 running back). It will be interesting to see how Richt's staff juggles a glut of talented ball carriers just a year after injuries to Gurley and Marshall created depth problems.

Tight end: With Ty Flournoy-Smith getting kicked off the team last summer and Arthur Lynch exhausting his eligibility in the fall, Georgia had a need at tight end. Jeb Blazevich (No. 101 overall, No. 2 tight end/H) could become Georgia's next great pass-catching tight end thanks to an impressive combination of size (6-foot-5) and soft hands.

Offensive line: Replenishing the line of scrimmage is always a priority, and with Georgia losing starting guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, signing a top prospect such as Isaiah Wynn (No. 106 overall, No. 6 guard) will be particularly valuable. The Bulldogs are also set to sign four-star tackle Dyshon Sims and three-star prospects Kendall Baker and Jake Edwards.

Receiver: Georgia has plenty of bodies here for 2014, but Chris Conley, Michael Bennett, Jonathon Rumph and Michael Erdman will each be seniors and Justin Scott-Wesley and Malcolm Mitchell will be fourth-year juniors.

The Bulldogs have secured commitments from ESPN 300 member Shakenneth Williams (No. 297 overall, No. 45 receiver) and three-star prospect Gilbert Johnson. They also are set to re-sign Rico Johnson, who failed to qualify after signing with the Bulldogs last February.

Defensive line/outside linebacker: Keep an eye on this group for the future. If Georgia lands Carter to go along with already-committed Lamont Gaillard (No. 55 overall, No. 4 defensive tackle), that could be the foundation for some outstanding defensive lines in the next couple of seasons.

The Bulldogs return almost everyone along the line from last season, so it is not a glaring immediate need. The 2014 line will be stocked with fourth-year players, though, so this is a good time to restock the depth charts for the future. They already have a commitment from the versatile Keyon Brown (No. 185 overall, No. 19 defensive end), with Carter and Williams potentially joining him. Like Brown, three-star outside linebacker Detric Dukes brings some versatility to the crop of commitments along the line.

Georgia's coaches never gave up on Allen-Williams even after his commitment to South Carolina in April. He insists he will still sign with the Gamecocks, but plans to visit Georgia with Carter and the others this weekend. Stay tuned.

Georgia DBs coach Lakatos resigns

January, 9, 2014
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Georgia announced Thursday evening that secondary coach Scott Lakatos has resigned for personal reasons.

“We are very appreciative of Scott's contributions to our program over the last four years and I have a great amount of respect for him as a coach and as a person,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said in a release. “We with him and his family nothing but the best.

Lakatos joined Richt's staff in 2010 and the Bulldogs ranked second in the SEC in pass defense last season. That secondary was stocked with senior talent -- including NFL draft picks Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and Sanders Commings -- but their departures ushered in an inexperienced set of defensive backs and a far less effective pass defense.

The Bulldogs finished 60th nationally in passing yards allowed per game (227.4), and the secondary was the weakest link on a green defense that took an overall step backward from its efforts in 2011 and 2012.

Georgia should return all of its key defensive backs from this season, including starting cornerbacks Damian Swann and Shaq Wiggins and safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons, Tray Matthews, Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger.

Georgia helmet stickers

January, 2, 2014
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JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Top performers for Georgia from its 24-19 loss to Nebraska on Wednesday in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl:

QB Hutson Mason: The junior made a few mistakes in his second start after Aaron Murray went down against Kentucky, but Mason threw for 320 yards and played a key role in UGA’s seven third-down conversions on 19 attempts. He struggled at times to connect with the wideouts, in part because of solid coverage by Nebraska, but Mason effectively checked to tailback Todd Gurley and tight end Arthur Lynch. The Bulldogs stalled in the red zone as several passes were dropped and Nebraska neutralized the ground game. Still, Mason had Georgia in position to win in the final minute. He appears poised for a strong senior season.

S Quincy Mauger: The true freshman set the tone on the first play from scrimmage by corralling Nebraska receiver Quincy Enunwa for a six-yard loss on a reverse. Without injured classmate Tray Matthews, Mauger took over a key role in the secondary. Yes, Enunwa got the best of him in the third quarter on the Huskers’ 99-yard touchdown connection, but cornerback Shaq Wiggins appeared equally unprepared to stop the long pass. The Georgia defense, aside from that breakdown, did its job well against Nebraska. Big play included, The Huskers gained just 307 yards and scored with the short field after two UGA turnovers.

PK Marshall Morgan: The all-SEC sophomore didn’t miss a kick in the Bulldogs’ final eight games, finishing 22 of 24 this season on field goals after a 4-for-4 performance on Wednesday. Morgan was perfect in difficult conditions as the grass at EverBank Field turned to slop in the rainy conditions. He hit from 38 yards twice (three times if you count his repeat after Nebraska failed to ice Morgan as time expired in the first half), 28 and 30. Until the first play of the fourth quarter, in fact, Morgan accounted for all of Georgia’s scoring. His strong finish to an outstanding season came after a rough freshman year in which Morgan made 8 of 14 field goals.

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.”

Georgia now has options at safety

November, 8, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Whenever an injury or suspension has impacted Georgia's lineup throughout his time as defensive coordinator, Todd Grantham's standard line was that it was a chance to create depth.

That being the case, Georgia has had more than enough opportunity to build depth at safety this season -- although the transition from longtime starters Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo to a group of newcomers has frequently been bumpy.

“It's just a process,” Grantham said. “You just stay the course and believe in the system and get the guys the reps they need and build on what they do well and try to improve the things that maybe they didn't do as well.”

Williams and Rambo started the vast majority of Georgia's games at safety between 2010 and 2012, so their departure for the NFL after last season created a huge hole at the back end of the Bulldogs' defense. Sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons -- the team's defensive MVP of spring practice -- and true freshman Tray Matthews were the offseason favorites to fill that vacancy, but a one-game suspension to Harvey-Clemons to open the season and a hamstring injury for Matthews have allowed the duo to play together for just three games.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsSafety Tray Matthews is expected to be back in the lineup for the first time since the Bulldogs' win over LSU in September.
Matthews should play Saturday for the first time since the Bulldogs' Sept. 28 win over LSU, which was the last time that Matthews, Harvey-Clemons and fellow safeties Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger all played in the same game.

Matthews has battled injuries essentially since preseason practice started in August, which put a damper on the excitement he generated during spring practice after enrolling at UGA in January.

“Even though he was here in the spring, he still has got to continue to work hard at perfecting what he does,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “In the meantime, some other guys have been playing a good bit and getting some experience and things like that. But yeah, we'd definitely like to get him going out on the defensive scrimmage downs, and I'm sure he'll do it this week.”

Georgia's long list of injury issues on offense has been the main storyline of the season entering Saturday's game against Appalachian State, but the issues at safety have been nearly as devastating -- particularly when you consider the lack of experience the group brought into the season.

True freshman Mauger is the only member of the foursome who has played in all eight games, while injuries and illnesses to the two junior college defensive backs in the 2013 signing class, Shaquille Fluker and Kennar Johnson, have prevented either from playing in a single game.

“This season has been a devastating year, but I feel like moments like this, it brings out the best in people,” said Moore, a junior who joins senior Connor Norman as the group's elder statesmen. “'You can never be scared of competition,' my dad always told me. Injuries create opportunities, and there were plenty of opportunities out there that different players had to step in and make plays.”

Moore has dealt with injuries himself. He tore the LCL in his knee while trying to block a punt during preseason practice and missed the Bulldogs' opener at Clemson. He didn't practice without a brace until the week of the Oct. 12 Missouri game. But he has made a couple of big plays for the Bulldogs in recent weeks, intercepting a pass two games ago against Vanderbilt and recording a 14-yard sack on Florida's final drive last week that helped Georgia put away a 23-20 win.

For the first time in a month, Moore is part of a safety group that is close to full strength -- Harvey-Clemons is also back after missing the second half of the Vanderbilt game and was frequently subbed out against Florida -- which provides options for Grantham and defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos that largely haven't existed this season.

“All four of those guys have had some snaps, so you feel comfortable rolling those guys in there,” Grantham said. “That allows you to maybe have some different packages where you can play with three safeties and things like that, too. Injuries create depth. It's been a process for those guys, but they've done a good job working hard and now we've got some depth.”

Mauger -- one of the least-heralded members of the 2013 class -- was thrust into position to where he had to play, but Grantham credited him for learning both safety positions and for his cerebral approach to the game. Mauger did not expect to play as much as he has, but the long list of injuries at his position forced him to fill a larger role than he might have otherwise.

“It is quite a surprise at some point,” he said, “but then again I worked so hard for it, so why not?”

Now with Matthews back, Grantham and Lakatos are actually in position to consider their options at safety. Grantham didn't tip his hand as to whether Matthews will start, noting only that “he'll definitely play,” but production matters more than who plays the first down, he said.

All four players will have an opportunity to produce, and slowly the group is becoming less of a liability than the one that was nearly devoid of on-field experience when the season started.

“You've just got to stay the course, believe in what you're doing and know the system works and just keep being consistent in your message to them and the things that you want them to do from a technique/fundamentals standpoint,” Grantham said. “And then it'll start clicking and they'll start playing fast and they'll make some plays.”

SEC lunchtime links

November, 8, 2013
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Half a day. We're almost there. Here are some links from around SEC country to help you finish off the work week.
ATHENS, Ga. -- One of the difficulties Georgia's freshmen-loaded secondary has experienced this season is reading what an opponent is attempting to accomplish and reacting quickly enough to make the necessary play.

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.

[+] EnlargeShaq Wiggins
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsFreshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who was ranked No. 39 in the 2013 ESPN 300, is coming into his own for the Bulldogs.
The Commodores lined up four linemen out wide in front of a receiver in order to attempt a trick play -- the Bulldogs believe it was going to be a double pass -- but Wiggins immediately broke on the ball after the snap and picked off Austyn Carta-Samuels' pass before Vandy's blockers even had time to react.

“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.”

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.
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,” 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.”

SEC freshmen power rankings

September, 25, 2013
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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:

[+] EnlargeLaquon Treadwell
Frederick Breedon/Getty ImagesTrue freshman WR Laquon Treadwell has been one of several instant-impact rookies for Ole Miss.
1. Ole Miss: The Rebels might have had the most talked about recruiting class this past spring, and boy has it delivered. Coach Hugh Freeze was concerned about the class receiving too much hype, but these kids haven't had trouble adapting to the college game. Heading into this week's Alabama game, Ole Miss has five true freshmen as starters on the depth chart. The headliners in the class have been defensive end Robert Nkemdiche, who has 10 tackles, including four for loss, and wide receiver Laquon Treadwell, who is averaging 5.3 catches per game and has 154 receiving yards. Tight end Evan Engram has also had a major impact, catching 11 passes for 175 yards and two touchdowns, while offensive tackle Laremy Tunsil will make his second straight start at left tackle. Starting nickel corner Tony Conner intercepted a pass on his first career defensive snap, while offensive lineman Austin Golson has played around 50 percent of the snaps.

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.

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