Georgia Bulldogs: Connor Norman

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.

UGA position groups to improve: No. 2

February, 13, 2014
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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.

Moore helping Terry adjust at safety

December, 18, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. – Corey Moore has taken on the role of teacher this week.

The junior safety's pupil? Redshirting freshman Tramel Terry, who up until bowl practice had been a receiver at Georgia.

“I'm trying to do the best that I can. I know we've got some new faces back there, so I think I'm just going to take their hand like [Bacarri] Rambo and Shawn [Williams] did to me,” Moore said, referring to the pair of longtime Bulldogs starting safeties and current NFL rookies. “So it should be an exciting process.”

Because of his explosive playmaking skills, Terry was among Georgia's highest-rated 2013 signees. ESPN listed him as the nation's No. 89 overall prospect and No. 9 athlete, and coaches raved about his potential as a future offensive weapon.

Needless to say, it seemed like a surprise move when Terry practiced with the safeties this week, but Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said it had been a long time coming. While Terry practiced at receiver along with the other scout team members, the defensive coaches started to take notice of what looked like an excellent defensive back in the making.

“I just think that the defensive coaches were kind of keeping an eye on him and kind of coveting him and kind of playfully recruiting him a little bit,” Richt said. “Sometimes if a guy's on your scout team, they hang around the defensive coaches more than the offensive coaches when it comes to practice time. And they liked what they saw and thought it might be a good move for the defense.”

At 6-foot, Terry certainly has a body type that fits the average NFL safety instead of the rangier pro receiver. That was one of the arguments defensive coordinator Todd Grantham could make in proposing a change to Terry and the offensive coaches.

“I think Coach Grantham's background in the NFL and just how he sees prospects and things of that nature, he really sees him as a great-looking safety prospect,” Richt said. “It was something that the defensive staff was all for, and actually kind of started it off, started the whole conversation.”

The transition is obviously in its extremely early stages, however. Before almost every practice rep in the periods of practice that are open to the media, Terry receives plenty of instruction from defensive graduate assistant Mike Macdonald and veterans like Moore and Connor Norman.

Terry played some defensive back in high school, but has a long way to go to be a proficient college defensive back. But he has already flashed a willingness to tackle – an attribute the big-hitting Moore appreciates.

“I was telling him, 'If you get confused, just do what [Macdonald] says: 'Kick [butt].' Just go out there and just play,” Moore said. “But I told him, 'If you ever run across something that you do not know, you ask a coach first. And if you can't get to him, you can always come to me. Just try to pick up on some of the knowledge that Connor has because this is his last year.' That's where I basically learned the ins and outs of this defense.”

Moore's new role as Terry's teacher is not valuable only for the former freshman receiver. It's also valuable for Moore, who will be one of two seniors in the 2014 secondary along with cornerback Damian Swann. Those are the players who will likely help organize their young position mates for summer position workouts and passing sessions.

Moore just enjoyed his first steady playing time this season after Rambo and Williams' departure, so he was in the pupil's role for most of his career. Now Moore – and the talented young players he will try to lead -- can help Georgia's secondary recover from an erratic 2013, starting with this week's on-campus bowl practices.

“I'm just getting into it now, as you guys know,” Moore said. “I'm pretty much the vet at the safety spot. But it's pretty fun. I know what I have in store for those young guys. We can be a great defensive back corps if we want to. It's just the fact of us going out there and wanting to be great.”

Five things: Georgia-Kentucky

November, 23, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Here are five things you need to know leading up to Saturday night's game between Georgia (6-4, 4-3 SEC) and Kentucky (2-8, 0-6).

Last time for the seniors: This is it for Aaron Murray and Georgia's 27 other seniors who will play their final home game at Sanford Stadium. The group enters the Kentucky game with a four-year record of 34-17, having won SEC East titles in 2011 and 2012.

Included in that group are eight players who started last Saturday's game against Auburn: Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Dallas Lee and Kenarious Gates, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and defensive lineman Garrison Smith.

Murray's record chase: Murray is already the only quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000-plus yards in three seasons. He needs just 108 yards against Kentucky to make it all four seasons. Having already broken the SEC career records for passing yards, touchdown passes, total offense and completions this season, Murray can still chase down two more records before the season ends. He is 59 pass attempts behind former Kentucky quarterback Jared Lorenzon's career total of 1,514 and needs 12 touchdowns rushing or passing to match Florida great Tim Tebow's mark for touchdown responsibility (145).

League's top tacklers meet: The top three tacklers in the SEC will be on the field tonight: Georgia's Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera and Kentucky's Avery Williamson. Last week against Auburn, Wilson posted Georgia's highest single-game tackles total since 1998 when he recorded 18 stops. That pushed his SEC-leading tackles total to 110 (11 per game). After making 12 tackles against Auburn, Herrera now has 91 tackles this season. Williamson is third with 88 tackles after finishing second in the league with 135 stops last season.

Two Georgia players have led the SEC in tackles: Whit Marshall in 1995 (128) and Rennie Curran in 2009 (130).

Strangely close series: Georgia is regularly a heavy favorite -- and it is again this week, with late-week lines favoring the Bulldogs by 24 points -- but Kentucky has frequently been a tough opponent in the last decade.

Dating back to the Wildcats' upset win in 2006, Georgia is 5-2 against the Wildcats. But included in those five wins are a 42-38 win in 2008, a 19-10 victory where Georgia clinched the 2011 SEC East title after leading just 12-10 entering the final quarter, and last season's 29-24 win in Lexington. Murray torched the Wildcats' secondary for 427 yards and four touchdowns last year, but it took a late onside kick recovery by Connor Norman to disrupt the Wildcats' upset bid.

The news from Thursday that Wildcats coach Mark Stoops had suspended starting cornerback Cody Quinn, third-leading receiver Demarco Robinson and freshman defensive end Jason Hatcher for violating team rules certainly won't help Kentucky's cause.

Turnover troubles: Aside from the score, turnover margin is typically one of the most telling stats in football. Keep an eye on turnovers tonight, as both of these teams have had odd seasons in that regard. Georgia is tied for last in the SEC in turnover margin (minus-eight) although it has taken care of the ball fairly effectively throughout. The Bulldogs' problem is that the defense has intercepted just four passes and recovered five fumbles. They generated 30 turnovers (17 fumble recoveries and 13 interceptions) last season.

Meanwhile, Kentucky is dead even in turnover margin this year, having 11 giveaways and 11 takeaways. The Wildcats have just one interception this season -- by linebacker Josh Forrest -- but they rank second in the SEC with 10 fumble recoveries. Their offense was second nationally for fewest turnovers, but quarterback Jalen Whitlow threw four interceptions last Saturday in a 22-6 loss to Vanderbilt.

Five things: Georgia-Auburn

November, 16, 2013
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Here are five factors to watch today as No. 25 Georgia visits No. 7 Auburn.

Defending the zone read: You've likely read this week that the No. 1 key for Georgia today is defending Auburn's running game, which leads the SEC and ranks third nationally at 320 yards per game. The centerpiece of that rushing attack is the zone-read run, where quarterback Nick Marshall has the option to hand off or run himself based on what he sees from the defense.

According to ESPN Stats and Information, Auburn leads the SEC in yards (150.5 ypg), touchdowns (17) and 10-yard plays (39) on zone-read runs and has gained at least 100 yards on such plays in six out of the last seven games. Marshall has run 62 times out of his 104 total carries on the zone read and averaged 9.3 yards per attempt -- including 221 yards against Tennessee last week, the most such yards by an AQ player in a game this season.

Georgia's edge players -- outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd and nickelback Josh Harvey-Clemons -- must play a disciplined game along with linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson in order to defend those plays. The Bulldogs have defended the run well overall, ranking fourth in the SEC with 120.6 yards allowed per game, but they have been erratic at setting the edge -- and that could be an important factor against Auburn.

Bulldogs' returning weapons: Todd Gurley and Michael Bennett have been back for a couple weeks. Now tight end Arthur Lynch and receiver Chris Conley could rejoin them in Georgia's offensive lineup. All of a sudden, Georgia's formerly explosive offense looks a lot more like the group that lit up scoreboards early in the season.

Tailback Gurley isn't back at 100 percent -- how big of a workload he can assume will be one of the biggest keys today -- but quarterback Aaron Murray should have some productive weapons at his disposal. Despite the injuries that have hit his team, Murray still has the sixth-best opponent-adjusted Total QBR (86.7 in the FBS this season and is completing 52.4 percent of his passes of 15 yards or more. The Bulldogs will likely look to strike on the big play today.

Special teams woes: Perhaps the scariest matchup for Georgia is its special teams units against Auburn's. UGA special teams ace Connor Norman said earlier this week that the distinguishing characteristic of Auburn return men Corey Grant and Chris Davis -- both of whom returned kicks for touchdowns last week -- and Tre Mason is their speed and aggressiveness in hitting the hole. Georgia is 13th in the SEC in kickoff coverage (38.1 yards per return), but ranks 18th nationally in punt return defense (4.1). The Bulldogs must also avoid the other special teams meltdowns like blocked punts and bad snaps that have plagued them at points this season.

Defending Auburn offense: The zone-read run is only one element of Auburn's offense that will concern Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham. Marshall is an erratic thrower, but he has had success throwing the deep ball to Sammie Coates (26 catches for 648 and 5 TDs), who ranks second nationally with 24.9 yards per catch, and the wheel route to various receivers, including tight end C.J. Uzomah. It all starts with the run, though, as Auburn leads all AQ schools this season in rushing yards before contact (2,097 of its 3,200 yards came before the first hit).

An interesting side note in Georgia's attempt to defend the Tigers is that Harvey-Clemons has actually played the Marshall role in this scheme. He said his coach at Lowndes High School attended a coaching clinic at Auburn and implemented Gus Malzahn's offense with the athletic Harvey-Clemons moonlighting at quarterback in the Wing-T offshoot. The Vikings shied away from using Harvey-Clemons in that position as the season progressed because of the hits he was taking and because the fatigue from playing the position was affecting him on defense. But he said his time executing the offense could be of assistance on defense today as he tries to diagnose what Marshall and company are attempting.

Beat the press: Keep an eye on the Georgia receivers' abilities to get off the line as they run their pass routes. Auburn's defensive backs are known for their aggressive, press-coverage tactics as they try to disrupt wideouts' timing with their quarterbacks and provide an extra second or two for their pass rushers to record a sack. Auburn has enjoyed mixed results in that endeavor. The Tigers are fourth in the SEC with 23 sacks and 11 interceptions, but they're also 11th in the league in pass defense, surrendering 238.8 passing yards per 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.”


Welcome to Missouri's world, SEC East. It isn't so pretty, is it?

A year ago, the Tigers were wrapped in bandages and chugging Robitussin every week of their debut season in the SEC. Now, it seems like the top teams in the SEC East are doing the same thing as we head into the sixth week of the 2013 season.

Florida, Georgia and South Carolina are dealing with injuries, and it looks like Missouri is actually the healthiest team and is starting to make some noise in the conference after its 51-28 thrashing of Vanderbilt in Nashville over the weekend.

[+] EnlargeKeith Marshall
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesGeorgia sophomore running back Keith Marshall is out for the season with a torn ACL.
It literally looks like the last man standing will win the SEC East this year, as injuries continue to pile up.

Just look at the Georgia Bulldogs. Heavy favorites to win the division after their 44-41 win against LSU two Saturdays ago, the Bulldogs are now in the realm of the unknown after losing three key offensive players to knee injuries in a thrilling overtime win over Tennessee. Running back Keith Marshall and wide receiver Justin Scott-Wesley are out for the rest of the season with ACL injuries, while receiver Michael Bennett will have to undergo surgery to find out the extent of his knee injury and will miss Saturday's game against Missouri.

Receiver Malcolm Mitchell was already lost for the season with an ACL injury, and running back Todd Gurley is sidelined with an ankle injury. Punter Collin Barber left Saturday's game early with a concussion, and Georgia was without receiver Jonathon Rumph (hamstring) and safeties Tray Matthews (hamstring) and Connor Norman (concussion) for the entire game.

So, Mark Richt, have you ever seen that many injuries in a game before?

“Not like that," he said following Saturday's game. "It's just such a shame."

It really is for the Bulldogs, and now Georgia's lead in the East doesn't look so insurmountable.

Florida came away from the weekend with quite the performance in its 30-10 win over Arkansas. What was so impressive, other than another dominating defensive performance? Well, the passing game stepped up when the Hogs buried Florida's running game.

Yes, you read that correctly. Florida's passing game stepped up and quarterback Tyler Murphy, who just so happens to be in for the injured Jeff Driskel (broken leg), threw for 240 yards and three touchdowns.

Arkansas certainly doesn't have the most intimidating defense, but Florida has to be feeling pretty good about last Saturday. Can the Gators sustain that? This team is down Driskel and its best overall player in defensive tackle Dominique Easley (ACL). Another big injury could cost the Gators a shot at Atlanta. Murphy has to stay upright if this team is even going to have a chance.

South Carolina watched quarterback Connor Shaw go down with a shoulder sprain against Central Florida only to bounce back and play well against Kentucky Saturday. Do injuries even affect this kid anymore? Still, his aggressive style makes him very susceptible to injuries.

It's become clear that injuries are affecting Jadeveon Clowney, who has played well below average this season. He's dealt with illness, a toe injury and now ribs. His coaches didn't even know he wasn't playing against Kentucky until right before the game.

"[If Clowney] wants to play, we will welcome him to come play for the team if he wants," Spurrier said after the game. "But if he doesn't want to play, he doesn't have to play. Simple as that."

The problem is that having him on the field -- even if he isn't playing close to 100 percent -- creates an issue for offenses. They've directed plays away from him and now they don't have to. Against the Wildcats, South Carolina's defense surrendered a 21-point lead. This defense has struggled, and it absolutely cannot afford anymore injuries at this point.

Then there's healthy, confident Mizzou. This was the team that couldn't get out of the infirmary last year. Now it's second in the SEC in total offense (543.8 yards per game), scoring (46.6) and sacks (15).

Mizzou has a chance to take a mighty step forward this weekend with a trip to Athens. The Dawgs beat up on the Tigers last year, but it's Georgia that enters Saturday's game battered and bruised. Mizzou should already be considered a threat in the East, but if the Tigers can keep bandages off their stripes, it'll be an exciting four-team race to Atlanta in the East.

Opportunities abound for Bulldogs

August, 29, 2013
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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.

[+] EnlargeMark Richt
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGeorgia coach Mark Richt admits he is curious to see how his young players perform against Clemson.
His absence created concerns about continuity, but senior safety Connor Norman -- listed as the starting strong safety while Josh Harvey-Clemons serves a one-game suspension -- said Matthews’ participation in spring practice alleviated those problems to a degree.

“Obviously communication is crucial between safeties, so him not being out there, it creates challenges,” Norman said. “But at the same time, he’s been there, he’s been working and we talk all the time. So I think we’ve been doing the best we can when it comes to getting comfortable with each other. We had all spring together, also, so it’s not like he got here and he was out the entire camp. He had a spring here, so I think some of that chemistry was already created.”

Norman, who started twice last season, is one of only six players on the two-deep who has a start under his belt. Included on that two-deep of 22 players are eight freshmen and a junior college transfer who will make their college debuts Saturday night in Death Valley.

“Those guys have really embraced their opportunity to be out here and that comes with learning the defense and knowing it a lot better,” Norman said. “All the credit goes to the guys that have earned the opportunity to play because they’ve taken responsibility for themselves.”

Opportunity abounds on Georgia’s defense, but it exists at certain positions on the Bulldogs’ veteran offense as well -- perhaps nowhere more than along the offensive line.

After his three-year NCAA eligibility battle ended this summer, Kolton Houston has battled 2012 starter John Theus for the right tackle job in August. The two have split first-team reps at tackle, while Theus has also filled in at right guard while team trainers took it easy on starter Chris Burnette in his return from offseason shoulder surgery.

“I was the kind of guy for three years that I don’t want to slack off and hold back the past three years because I always thought that there was going to be a time that I could play, so I always wanted to be ready,” said Houston, on the verge of playing his first college game since arriving at Georgia in January 2010. “And so now I definitely have a little more of a spark, but I’ve always practiced competitively since I’ve been here. I think that’s what’s helped me now.”

Redshirt sophomore Justin Scott-Wesley also seems ready for an increased role at receiver after earning substantial playing time for the first time in his career in Georgia’s last game, its Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska. The UGA track star is listed as Michael Bennett’s backup at split end and is one of a number of less experienced wideouts -- including freshman Reggie Davis and Kenny Towns -- who received a longer look in August thanks to injuries to veterans.

“Anytime you can get game reps and experience on the field, it’s good for your confidence and it’s good for the coaches’ confidence in you and your teammates’ confidence in you,” said Scott-Wesley, who had three catches for 67 yards against Nebraska. “So me coming out and showing that I could handle myself in a gametime situation is good for me moving forward.”

More than any spots on offense, however, the young players in the secondary and at linebacker will be under the microscope in Saturday’s opener. This will be their opportunity to prove they deserve further playing time before Harvey-Clemons and the assorted injured veterans return to the lineup.

“Even a week from this game, we’re going to be in better shape from a safety standpoint, as far as health and guys that are available to play,” Richt said. “Do we have all hands on deck right now? We don’t, but the guys that are in there have to step up and play and do well.”
Todd Gurley, Trey DePriestKevin C. Cox/Getty ImagesTodd Gurley had 105 total yards and two touchdowns in Georgia's scrimmage Wednesday, part of a much more focused effort by the Bulldogs' offense.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Since his team will open the season at night against Clemson, Georgia coach Mark Richt wanted his team’s final two scrimmages to be under the lights.

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.”

SEC lunchtime links

August, 5, 2013
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A little lunchtime reading from around the SEC:

DawgNation Roundtable: Secondary 

June, 3, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Just when it looked like the identities of Georgia’s secondary starters were becoming clear, we learned that sophomore safety Josh Harvey-Clemons will miss the Bulldogs’ opener at Clemson.

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?

DawgNation week in review 

May, 4, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- With the spring evaluation period in full swing, Georgia’s football coaches continue to work on assembling next year’s signing class.

This week in DawgNation, we took a look at some prospects who might receive scholarship offers from Mark Richt’s staff in the coming days and weeks. We also heard from the head coach himself as he discussed some of the recruiting issues facing college staffs these days.

As for specific prospects, we provided updates this week on several players, including:

We also had our own Kipp Adams appear on a new video feature called “SEC Official Visit,” where he discussed the new commitments -- ESPN 150 honorees Sony Michel and Jeb Blazevich -- who joined Georgia’s 2014 class last week.

It was quiet on the team side with players preparing for summer and taking their final exams this week. We still delivered a few team-related stories from both the local and national perspective.

At the beginning of the week, just after the conclusion of last week’s NFL draft, we looked forward to next year and examined some of Georgia’s top prospects for the 2014 draft. Along those lines, ESPN Insider Brock Huard also previewed next year’s draft, naming Bulldogs quarterback Aaron Murray as one of the top five quarterback prospects for next year.

ESPN Insider’s Travis Haney threw compliments toward another Bulldog, naming outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins as one of his top candidates to enjoy a breakout season this fall.

We also reviewed one of the big talking points of Georgia's spring practice -- that Georgia will have more game-ready offensive linemen capable of rotating this fall -- and examined whether position coach Will Friend might follow through with that possibility this fall.

We also rehashed a couple of interesting conversations with defensive end Ray Drew and safety Connor Norman as we continued our “Spring Cleaning” series and reviewed the previous weeks’ post-spring position reviews with an all-inclusive recap.

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Spring cleaning: Connor Norman

May, 1, 2013
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Editor's note: Over the next couple of weeks, we'll clean out our notebook from Georgia's spring practice to tell the stories we didn't get to before the Bulldogs' G-Day game. Previously we featured fullback Quayvon Hicks, tight end Jay Rome and defensive end Ray Drew. Today we recap a conversation with safety Connor Norman from a few days before the G-Day game.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Connor Norman doesn’t necessarily want to become a coach, but he assumed that role almost by default this spring.

As the only Georgia safety who has actually started a game on defense, he naturally felt somewhat like a teacher as he helped younger teammates such as early enrollees Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger experience their first taste of college football.

“There’s a lot of young guys and I feel like I have a pretty decent understanding of the defense, so I feel like if that’s part of what I do, then I’m out there helping,” said Norman, a fifth-year senior. “I guess I do see myself as a teacher.”

(Read full post)

Post-spring position review: S 

April, 26, 2013
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Editor’s note: DawgNation's post-spring positional analysis continues this week after focusing on the offense last week. Today we examine the safeties:

Returning players/stats: Connor Norman, Jr. (Two starts. 18 tackles); Corey Moore, Jr. (One start. 14 tackles, one tackle for a loss); Marc Deas, Jr. (One tackle, one blocked punt); Josh Harvey-Clemons, So. (14 tackles, one TFL, one pass breakup);


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UGA spring preview: 5 positions to watch 

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

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

Here are five positions that bear close watching this spring:

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