Georgia Bulldogs: reggie wilkerson
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.
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.
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
ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt believes the spate of knee injuries that struck his team this season were a fluke and nothing more.
Most of the injuries, including that of record-setting quarterback Aaron Murray, occurred while changing direction, which Georgia's coach said is unfortunately common in athletics. If a training program existed to prevent such injuries, Richt said the Bulldogs' strength and conditioning staff would certainly follow its methods.
“I think the No. 1 sport for ACL injuries from what I understand is girls soccer -- not really a high-contact sport, but a lot of changing direction, and that happens a lot. So I don't think we're doing anything that we shouldn't be doing. It's just been one of those years where we had a few.”
Murray -- who tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee near the end of a 28-yard run in the second quarter of Saturday's win against Kentucky -- is only the most recent example of a problem that started even before the season began. At least six Bulldogs missed all or part of the season after sustaining ACL injuries within the last year.
Freshmen Tramel Terry and Reggie Wilkerson were the first to suffer such setbacks -- Terry in a non-contact situation while returning the opening kickoff in a 2012 postseason all-star game and Wilkerson during summer workouts.
Receiver Malcolm Mitchell sustained his ACL injury while leaping in the air to celebrate Todd Gurley's 75-yard touchdown run in the first quarter of the opener against Clemson. Five weeks later, receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall both suffered ACL injuries against Tennessee, with Marshall's occurring as he took an awkward hit and Scott-Wesley's coming when he quickly changed direction to avoid running into a return man while covering a punt.
“You've just got to look at each one of them,” Richt said. “Malcolm jumps up and lands funny, and to have an ACL, that happens. Justin Scott-Wesley's changing direction trying to avoid running into a punt [returner]. Aaron's changing direction and it happens. Keith got hit, obviously, and that added to the way his ended up. So I don't think there's really anything you could do or anything that we've done that would cause that type of thing.”
Richt said Murray injured his knee Saturday when he cut to his right in an attempt to gain more yards at the end of his long run -- not on the play that ultimately knocked him out of the game. Although he was visibly struggling with a physical ailment after the run, Murray completed the possession where he suffered the injury and talked his coaches into letting him stay in for the next drive -- playing 13 total downs on the injured knee -- before a hard hit by Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith was the last straw.
“There was something wrong and he knew it and couldn't hide it anymore,” Richt said. “He was trying to hide it from everybody, I think.”
Richt said Murray's staying in the game after sustaining the injury did no additional damage. Murray injured only his ACL, and did so without much swelling around the injured ligament, so he will be able to undergo surgery this week rather than wait at least a week for the swelling to subside.
Murray still has a months-long rehabilitation process ahead, which will prevent him from competing in a postseason all-star game or in the NFL combine, but Richt believes the SEC's all-time leading passer will remain an appealing draft prospect.
“I think he'll get drafted,” Richt said. “ACL injuries, especially if you only have one and you don't have anything extenuating along with it ... there wasn't major damage to his knee, there was just ACL. I may be saying more than I'm supposed to say, but from what I've heard, there's nothing that is connected with it other than that, and those tend to heal very well and rehabs go very well.”
As for the prevalence of the Bulldogs' season-ending knee injuries this fall, Richt said there was a time when such an injury might not have ended a player's season. He used former UGA and NFL receiver Hines Ward, who played his entire college and pro career without an ACL in his left knee -- presumably the result of a childhood accident -- as an example, but there are many others who were able to play more than just 13 downs after sustaining similar injuries.
The goal now for Murray and his other injured teammates is to make good use of their recovery process, and Richt said Murray is “already kind of getting geared up for that challenge.”
“You could play with an ACL torn,” Richt said. “It's just nowadays, you have the imaging now, you have the MRIs, you see what the issue is and you go and make the repair. The repair is usually very successful.”
With numerous starters to replace and a boatload of newcomers joining the team this spring and summer, the Bulldogs’ defensive staff has its work cut out in first determining which players can help the team this fall, and then preparing them for that job.
When he met with reporters last week, Grantham explained how the staff will break its August preparations into three segments, starting with Thursday’s first preseason practice.
“The first third of camp, we need to evaluate our talent and find out what our pieces are,” Grantham said. “And then find the guys that can help us win and put those guys in those positions.”
The Bulldogs would be in a particularly tight spot had seven of those signees not enrolled in January. Most, if not all (except Wilkerson), of those early enrollees could play in some capacity this fall. And some -- like safety Tray Matthews, linebacker Reggie Carter and defensive linemen Chris Mayes and John Atkins -- could play a lot.
The learning process will continue for the early enrollees in camp, but they have a head start on signees who arrived during the summer. Confusion will be the typical state of being for that bunch over the next couple of weeks.
“I think we got a pretty good idea of what those guys can do and the fact that they came in in the spring was very beneficial to us and them,” Grantham said. “Even though they are freshmen, they’ve been through the system for a spring, got a good grasp on it so they’re going to get to do it again in August. The big thing is we need to evaluate the talent.”
Prepare for different offenses: This category required some adjustment for Grantham as well, having spent a decade-plus in the copycat NFL before returning to the college game in 2010. A defensive coordinator in college has to be on his toes because he will face a wide array of offenses over the course of the season -- an issue that doesn’t exist for coordinators in the pros.
The Bulldogs will spend the middle third of the preseason practicing concepts that will help them defend some of those offenses, from the Clemson spread in week one to the Georgia Tech option in the regular-season finale.
“You’ve got some tough games coming along. Obviously the first two [Clemson and South Carolina] are going to be important, but ... we have Florida in the middle there, we’ve got Missouri, we’ve got Tennessee that’s new, and then you’ve got Georgia Tech at the end that’s completely different, too, and you’re always going to have different nuances each week.
“My approach and our approach has always been to introduce those guys to the concepts that they’re going to have to have or understand to stop these style of offenses. So during the middle session, you’re going to get ready for your season.”
Dig into Clemson: Georgia’s coaches formulated general plans for their first two games weeks ago. Once they’re two-thirds of the way through August, it will be time to begin implementing and modifying their plans for the Aug. 31 opener at Clemson.
The Tigers boasted one of the nation’s most productive offenses last season. And while they lost talented running back Andre Ellington and 1,400-yard wideout DeAndre Hopkins, they still return a Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Tajh Boyd and another star in receiver Sammy Watkins. But Grantham said they will approach preparing for the opener in their standard fashion despite the challenges that exist in defending the Tigers’ explosive attack.
“Once you get to the back end there, that’s when you start focusing in on the first game and getting ready for that,” Grantham said. “I think that no matter who your opponents are, you need to do it that way because you need to be ready for the long haul. You’ve got to be ready for the entire season and the things that present themselves each week.”
A full recovery is expected, according to Ron Courson, Georgia senior associate athletic director and director of sports medicine.
Cornerback Reggie Wilkerson (Citra, Fla./North Marion) who enrolled in January and went through spring camp, will also redshirt after undergoing surgery to repair an injury to his ACL two weeks ago. He hurt his knee while participating in voluntary pass coverage drills with his teammates in Athens.
“I won’t be playing next year,” Wilkerson said. “I tore my ACL and my meniscus.”
Wilkerson said a freak accident led to his injury.
“We were doing 7-on-7s and the receiver ran the wrong route,” Wilkerson said. “I ran into him, the tight end and the strong safety also. That just blew my knee out. I am the only one that got really hurt. I didn’t want anyone to know until tomorrow but people have already put it out on Twitter. I was getting ready to start but you know how it is.”
The Georgia secondary was already in the process of replacing four starters from last year, and with the news that safety Josh Harvey-Clemons will miss the season opener against Clemson, Wilkerson’s injury further depletes a thin secondary. Defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos will now have to rely on Damian Swann, Sheldon Dawson and Devin Bowman to man the cornerback spots, with true freshmen Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley getting looks, as well. Junior college transfer Kennar Johnson is coming to Georgia to play safety but could also help at cornerback, where he lined up last season.
Wilkerson will have ACL surgery on Friday at noon ET.
That threw open the door for other players to enter the lineup for the opener, not only in the four traditional secondary spots but also in the nickelback role that Harvey-Clemons figured to fill most of the time when the Bulldogs deployed five defensive backs.
However, we’ll keep the question simple for this week’s DawgNation roundtable: With Harvey-Clemons out of the picture for the first game, who will be the starting four in the secondary when Georgia plays its base defense against Clemson?
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2012 record: 12-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (first, SEC East)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 2
Top returners: QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OL Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, ILB Amarlo Herrera
Key losses: OLB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree, S Shawn Williams, S Bacarri Rambo, NG John Jenkins, CB Sanders Commings, WR Tavarres King
2012 statistical leaders (* - returner)
Rushing: Gurley * (1,385 yards)
Passing: Murray * (3,893 yards)
Receiving: King (950 yards)
Tackles: Alec Ogletree (111)
Sacks: Jones (14.5)
Interceptions: Swann * (4)
1. Safety starters: With 2011 All-Americans Rambo and Williams completing their college careers, the Bulldogs entered the spring with two big holes at safety. It appears sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons and January enrollee Tray Matthews have all but claimed the starting positions, however. Harvey-Clemons was named the Bulldogs’ defensive MVP of spring practice, and Matthews generated the most buzz of anyone this spring with his ability to deliver crushing hits. Georgia’s inexperience along the back end of the defense is not ideal, but the two youngsters could become a pleasant surprise.
gilly5134: I know it's hard to judge but how do you think the ACL injuries will affect Michael Bennett and Tramel Terry next year? I know it takes a lot of guys a while to get that mental edge back after realizing they can break.
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That’s exactly the attitude the Bulldogs’ coaching staff seemed to want to emphasize this spring with its young defense, encouraging players like Dawson to work hard this summer and earn a starting spot in the fall.
As Dawson reminds us, he hasn’t locked down a starting job by any means, but a strong spring and impressive speed and coverage skills make him a player worth watching in Georgia’s secondary.
2012 review: Dawson appeared in 13 games, mostly on special teams, and won the team’s Newcomer of the Year award. He finished the season with 12 tackles, including a season-high three in the win at Missouri.
2013 preview: As a sophomore, Dawson’s role won’t be limited to special teams play. He’ll be a leading contender for a starting job when the Bulldogs open preseason camp in August, but he’ll have to fend off a number of alternative candidates including Reggie Wilkerson, Devin Bowman and Shaq Wiggins.
Spring prospectus: Dawson seemed to be helping his cause to become a starter prior to injuring his hamstring in the Bulldogs’ second spring scrimmage. He intercepted three passes in the two scrimmages, but did not participate in G-Day or the two practices afterward because of the injury. Nonetheless, Dawson got beaten in coverage a time or two and also made more than his share of plays, which could give him a leg up on the other contenders in the coaches’ estimation.
Career potential: Damian Swann needs somebody to step up and win the starting spot alongside him and Dawson took the biggest step toward doing that this spring. This might be Swann’s final season as a Bulldog, so Dawson could help ease the transition if he begins showing some leadership and performs well on the field like Swann did last fall in his first season as a starter.
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ATHENS, Ga. -- While predicting which freshmen will play this fall is obviously an inexact science this far ahead of the regular season, Georgia coach Mark Richt on Saturday shared an easy explanation of how quickly his staff must bring along certain members of their 13-man class of midyear enrollees during spring practice.
If they play a position of particular need, Richt said, their learning curve naturally will accelerate.
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Here are five players worth watching between now and the G-Day game on April 6:
1. Josh Harvey-Clemons: The rising sophomore will essentially be a rookie when he jumps into the competition at both outside linebacker and safety this spring. He’ll play both positions this fall based on matchups according to coach Mark Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Harvey-Clemons -- ESPN’s No. 1 outside linebacker in the 2012 signing class -- played almost exclusively in a nickelback role last season, so he has a lot to learn. His athleticism will give him the opportunity to become one of the Bulldogs’ most dynamic playmakers at his new spots.
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Scene and Heard: Top 10 Predictions
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