Georgia Bulldogs: Sheldon Dawson
“We're not talking about that yet,” the Georgia linebacker said after last Saturday's double-overtime win against Georgia Tech. “The season's not over yet. But when the season gets over, we'll start talking about those things and people will remember these [comebacks against Auburn and Georgia Tech].”
Step one in the evolution of a defense that loses only one senior starter -- defensive lineman Garrison Smith -- will be to put together complete games, not just decent halves. Against both Auburn and Georgia Tech, in particular, disastrous starts forced the Bulldogs to mount dramatic rallies in the game's waning possessions.
Wilson has a point. The starts were horrendous -- Auburn scored 27 points and Georgia Tech 20 before halftime -- but Georgia's defense was fairly solid in the second half of more than just those two dramatic comeback bids.
The Bulldogs were awful defensively for most of the first month of the season, with a 28-point second half by Tennessee in Game 5 perhaps ranking as the low point. But since then, Todd Grantham's defense has generally improved as the games progressed.
Since the Tennessee game, the Bulldogs allowed 10 second-half touchdowns in seven games -- half of those coming when opponent scoring started at the 50-yard line or closer because of errors by Georgia's offense or special teams. In the last month of the regular season, the Bulldogs allowed seven second-half points to both Georgia Tech and Kentucky, zero to Appalachian State and 16 to Auburn, although the final six came on a 73-yard Ricardo Louis touchdown catch for the game-winning score after Bulldogs safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews failed to bat down an off-target pass.
“We said it felt like it was like the Auburn game,” Herrera said of the Bulldogs' rally from a 20-0 deficit against Georgia Tech. “We just had to step up and we had to make plays real quick before it got ugly.”
The Tech game was already bordering on ugly before the Bulldogs salvaged it with their second-half rally. They argued afterward that the comeback was an example of their season-long persistence, even against long odds.
“Everybody knows about the tipped pass at Auburn and people wanted to know how we would bounce back off that. Well, we're 2-0 off that loss,” said sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson, who was victimized in coverage on several of Tech's biggest passes. “It's not about how you fall because you're going to fall in this game of football. You're going to fall many times. It's just you've got to get back up.
“Like for myself, to me I had a poor game, but how did I respond? I just tried to keep playing and show my teammates that I'm playing to get better on the next drive.”
The hope for Grantham and his staff is that the rocky moments that Dawson and many other youthful defenders experienced this season will become learning tools as they mature. The 2013 defense was simply not consistent enough, as its program-worst point (opponents averaged 29.4 ppg) and yardage (381.2 ypg) totals reflect, but there were occasional flashes of promise, as well.
He used the game-ending, fourth-down pass breakup to clinch the win against Georgia Tech as an example -- which easily could have been the third such key fourth-down stop by his defense had one of his safeties properly defended Auburn's last-gasp throw or had an official kept the flag in his pocket instead of incorrectly penalizing Wilson for targeting on a fourth-quarter pass breakup against Vanderbilt.
“That's the third fourth-down situation that we've had this year. We had one at Vandy, we had one at Auburn and we had one here,” Grantham said. “We've got a lot of young players on our team that will grow from it and they'll get confidence from it and we're going to develop them and move forward and win a bunch of games.”
The talent clearly exists for Grantham's projection to become reality. Harvey-Clemons, Matthews, outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins and Leonard Floyd, defensive end Ray Drew, Herrera and Wilson -- all of them should be back in 2014. If they and their defensive cohorts can perform with discipline that matches their physical capabilities, Georgia's defense could take a step forward next fall.
It's on Grantham and company to ensure that such progress occurs.
“Part of coaching and part of a program and part of being what we want to be, when it's going not the way you want it, you find a way to battle back,” Grantham said.
ATHENS, Ga. -- If the last month taught Sheldon Dawson anything about Georgia’s green secondary, it’s that capability is not the Bulldogs’ issue.
“For us to be counted out so bad, we actually look good,” Dawson said earlier this week.
As Saturday’s game at Clemson approaches, the young players stepping into big roles on Georgia’s defense remain the team’s biggest question mark, although Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said Tuesday he is “probably more curious than concerned” about how they will perform.
Nonetheless, with one of the nation’s most prolific offenses on deck, Richt admitted that a secondary that features five players who have never started a game -- including Dawson and true freshmen cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins -- listed on the two-deep depth chart will be tested.
“Those guys aren’t good receivers, they’re great receivers. They’re really prolific guys in the college game that are going to play on Sundays,” Richt said of a Clemson receiving corps that includes 2011 All-American Sammy Watkins. “So here you’ve got some young pups in there that are going to try and hook it up with them, it’s going to be tough. … It’s not a good matchup for us right now.”
Compounding the issue is that the Bulldogs dealt with an assortment of injuries in August. Junior safety Corey Moore is likely out against Clemson after spraining his knee. Dawson returned to practice last week after a number of ailments forced him to miss time during preseason camp. And freshman safety Tray Matthews missed several weeks before returning to his presumed starting role this week in practice.
“Obviously communication is crucial between safeties, so him not being out there, it creates challenges,” Norman said. “But at the same time, he’s been there, he’s been working and we talk all the time. So I think we’ve been doing the best we can when it comes to getting comfortable with each other. We had all spring together, also, so it’s not like he got here and he was out the entire camp. He had a spring here, so I think some of that chemistry was already created.”
Norman, who started twice last season, is one of only six players on the two-deep who has a start under his belt. Included on that two-deep of 22 players are eight freshmen and a junior college transfer who will make their college debuts Saturday night in Death Valley.
“Those guys have really embraced their opportunity to be out here and that comes with learning the defense and knowing it a lot better,” Norman said. “All the credit goes to the guys that have earned the opportunity to play because they’ve taken responsibility for themselves.”
Opportunity abounds on Georgia’s defense, but it exists at certain positions on the Bulldogs’ veteran offense as well -- perhaps nowhere more than along the offensive line.
After his three-year NCAA eligibility battle ended this summer, Kolton Houston has battled 2012 starter John Theus for the right tackle job in August. The two have split first-team reps at tackle, while Theus has also filled in at right guard while team trainers took it easy on starter Chris Burnette in his return from offseason shoulder surgery.
“I was the kind of guy for three years that I don’t want to slack off and hold back the past three years because I always thought that there was going to be a time that I could play, so I always wanted to be ready,” said Houston, on the verge of playing his first college game since arriving at Georgia in January 2010. “And so now I definitely have a little more of a spark, but I’ve always practiced competitively since I’ve been here. I think that’s what’s helped me now.”
Redshirt sophomore Justin Scott-Wesley also seems ready for an increased role at receiver after earning substantial playing time for the first time in his career in Georgia’s last game, its Capital One Bowl win over Nebraska. The UGA track star is listed as Michael Bennett’s backup at split end and is one of a number of less experienced wideouts -- including freshman Reggie Davis and Kenny Towns -- who received a longer look in August thanks to injuries to veterans.
“Anytime you can get game reps and experience on the field, it’s good for your confidence and it’s good for the coaches’ confidence in you and your teammates’ confidence in you,” said Scott-Wesley, who had three catches for 67 yards against Nebraska. “So me coming out and showing that I could handle myself in a gametime situation is good for me moving forward.”
More than any spots on offense, however, the young players in the secondary and at linebacker will be under the microscope in Saturday’s opener. This will be their opportunity to prove they deserve further playing time before Harvey-Clemons and the assorted injured veterans return to the lineup.
“Even a week from this game, we’re going to be in better shape from a safety standpoint, as far as health and guys that are available to play,” Richt said. “Do we have all hands on deck right now? We don’t, but the guys that are in there have to step up and play and do well.”
“Really if you play hard, you’ll end up making a play,” the Georgia outside linebacker said after Tuesday’s practice.
It might not sound like much, but that playing style -- “I’m bringing speed all day, every day,” Floyd said -- has helped him become perhaps Georgia’s fastest-rising freshman during preseason practice. Other Bulldogs might play with a high motor, but Floyd’s consistent effort in practice has been enough for Georgia coach Mark Richt to single him out during a team gathering.
“His head’s still spinning learning stuff, but he’s really impressed me how hard he practices on a daily basis,” Richt said. “… He really stood out to me. He’s been standing out to me for a while.”
The pass-rush specialist quickly made an impression on teammates and coaches with his work at strongside linebacker, to the point that he could steal some playing time from expected starter James DeLoach. In fact, he almost seems to be a lock to contribute on scrimmage downs.
“Floyd’s going to be a good asset to us,” outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. “I think he’ll play a good bit this year, a guy with his size and his frame. He’s quick off the ball and he’s really like his nickname, Flow, because he’s real smooth with his moves and stuff like that.”
Floyd might be the freshman who made the biggest impression in Georgia’s preseason practices, but he’s not the only member of that group. Here are a few others whose names consistently cropped up as impact freshmen in a highly informal poll of Georgia veterans.
Brendan Douglas, running back
Douglas might be the most pleasant preseason surprise on Georgia’s veteran offense.
“He’s just running people over. He hurdled a DB [a diving Shaq Wiggins] last week in the scrimmage. It was an unbelievable play,” senior quarterback Aaron Murray said. “Just a tough kid, and one of our best blocking running backs right now. He’s not afraid to stick his nose in there, I don’t care who it is, and knock them right under the chin. So it’s great to see him back there. He’s worked his tail off and he definitely deserves some playing time.”
Douglas has ceded the No. 3 tailback spot to fellow freshman J.J. Green for now after spraining the MCL in his left knee on Monday. But Richt said after Wednesday’s scrimmage that the injury would not require surgery and will not end Douglas’ season.
Reggie Carter, inside linebacker
Carter has continued his upward trajectory from spring practice this August, solidifying a spot behind veteran starters Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson as the season approaches.
Wilson recently said that Carter possesses the quickest hands among the Bulldogs’ inside linebackers and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said he has been the most consistent of the four freshmen who arrived in the most recent signing class.
“I’d have to say Reggie’s the guy that’s kind of stood out the most right now,” Grantham said.
Carter tied Herrera for second on the team with three tackles in Wednesday’s final preseason scrimmage -- one behind Wilson. But it seems evident that all three players will fill key roles on Grantham’s defense once the Clemson game arrives.
Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley, cornerbacks
These days, you rarely hear one of the freshman cornerbacks mentioned without the other’s name following shortly thereafter. But that’s a good thing, as both of them have emerged as consistent playmakers in the injury-depleted secondary.
They both intercepted passes in each of the last two team scrimmages -- with Wiggins returning one for a touchdown in Wednesday night’s practice game and Langley taking one to the house the previous week.
Although the freshman duo has no chance of taking junior cornerback Damian Swann’s job and will face heavy competition for playing time from sophomore Sheldon Dawson, their performances have impressed the coaches.
“I thought our young guys were challenged [in the second scrimmage] a little bit and made some plays,” Grantham said. “I see those guys getting better. Langley’s a guy that continues to improve. He’s a very conscientious guy.”
As for Wiggins, take his fellow freshman’s word concerning his play thus far in August.
“We all know he’s a feisty little dude,” Langley said. “He’s making plays almost every play. Like I said, he’s real feisty, he’s a great cover corner. He’s come up and making big plays in the running game, so you can’t really ask for more.”
Reggie Davis, wide receiver
If there was any question whether Davis might redshirt this season because of Georgia’s impressive depth at receiver, it seemed to be answered on Wednesday. He played with the regulars, not the scout team, and ranked among the team’s leading receivers with two catches for 29 yards.
“He might play a lot this year. He’s a speed demon,” Murray said of the former high school track star. “He’s I think the fastest guy in our receiving corps and we have some speed over there, and he’s worked his tail off to earn his position, learn the plays, has definitely opened a lot of eyes out there with what he’s able to do with his route-running ability.”
Georgia has multiple reliable options at receiver, including Malcolm Mitchell, Michael Bennett and Chris Conley. But Davis’ speed and consistent hands have apparently helped him win some playing time.
“In the next two years, he’s probably going to be one of the best players here. Hands down,” Mitchell said. “He wants to learn, he wants to get better. That’s where it starts.”
“I’m thinking right now I’m going to have Clemson with a 28-0 lead going into the third quarter and see if Georgia can come back and win it, so stay tuned. We’ll see what happens,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said after Tuesday’s practice.
The Wednesday evening event at Sanford Stadium -- Georgia’s third and final preseason scrimmage -- will serve as a practice game for the opener. For the first time, Richt’s staff will split the roster into expected contributors for the Clemson game versus everyone else.
That scout team will simulate Clemson, and will attempt to defend the four-touchdown halftime lead with reserve quarterbacks Christian LeMay and Faton Bauta simulating Tigers star quarterback Tajh Boyd against the veterans.
It also gives the coaching staff an opportunity to practice logistical situations, such as from a kickoff to a scrimmage series or following a change of possession, for the first time in a game-like environment. And they’ll do so with the personnel who will have to make those in-game transitions on Aug. 31.
“It’s just to get everybody more prepared for the game -- the things that we’re going to actually be doing and to put it in play,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith. “That sort of thing.”
Although the coaching staff informed the players Tuesday which ones will start out on the scout team, Richt and Smith both said they have seen youngsters battle their way into playing time during the season after initially being cast aside with the scout team. Richt used former Bulldogs linebacker Odell Thurman as an example of a player who fought his way off the scout team, and said players can similarly change opinions again with starting positions or contributing roles.
“There’s probably some starting positions on the line,” Richt said. “I know there’s some guys that probably still could possibly turn a coach’s head and say, ‘You know, this kid’s ready to play.’ There’ll be some guys that are playing for Clemson that could possibly sprout or however you want to say it or just play so well that we’re like, ‘You know what, maybe we ought to give this guy some reps.’ ”
One area that will remain a concern beyond Wednesday’s scrimmage is the injury-depleted secondary. The group which must already replace three starters and will be without strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons -- who is suspended for the opener -- continues to struggle with injuries.
Of the 13 players listed on Georgia’s Tuesday pre-practice injury report, seven were defensive backs including expected starting safety Tray Matthews (out with a hamstring strain) and the only returning starter, cornerback Damian Swann (limited with a hip flexor/groin strain). Cornerbacks Sheldon Dawson (shoulder sprain) and Devin Bowman (hamstring strain) and safety Corey Moore (knee sprain) -- all expected contributors this season -- were either limited or held out on Tuesday.
“The group that goes with Georgia, it’ll be interesting to see how much time the Clemson quarterback will have to get the ball off,” Richt said. “I think we’ve got a good enough line that’ll be playing for Clemson tomorrow that should be able to protect the quarterback, should be able to allow him to make some passes.
“There’ll be some receivers on that team that can make plays. So it’s not going to be a situation where they’re not going to get tested. I’m not saying they’re going to be as good as Clemson by any stretch, but they’ll be good enough to put some pressure on them.”
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.”
“My first pass from scrimmage was a takeoff to Reggie [Davis] and I overthrew him. I told him, ‘There’s no way my noodle arm can outrun your speed, dude, so run.’ But I just missed him -- barely, barely missed him,” Mason said. “It might have been a touchdown if he would have caught it. So there’s always room for improvement. There were a couple throws that I missed that could have made it a better scrimmage.”
It was that kind of day for the offense. A couple of near misses, a sluggish start and six interceptions -- three by starting quarterback Aaron Murray -- made it a bit of a disappointment for Mike Bobo’s group, which returns 10 starters from last season’s high-scoring bunch.
Keith Marshall broke a 75-yard touchdown run against the second-team defense. Todd Gurley ran 12 times for 59 yards and a score. Tight end Arthur Lynch (four catches for 91 yards and a touchdown) and receivers Malcolm Mitchell (4-64), Justin Scott-Wesley (4-53) and Jonathon Rumph (4-53) all made four catches and Lynch and Rhett McGowan caught touchdown passes.
And Murray and Mason were a combined 25-for-36 with a touchdown apiece (13-for-18 for 198 yards for Murray and 12-for-18 for 197 for Mason) with Murray accounting for the only interceptions between the two veteran signal-callers.
It was just that it wasn’t the crisp opening effort that they would have liked.
“I thought the guys looked kind of tired,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I think they were trying to fight, but for the first time didn’t see as much juice. It was a little disappointing to me, quite frankly, being that it was a scrimmage. But practice No. 8, it was the first day after the first two-a-day, I’m sure they are worn out.”
Nineteen players were listed on the Bulldogs’ Wednesday injury report -- including starters like receiver Michael Bennett (hamstring strain), right guard Chris Burnette (shoulder) and safety Tray Matthews (shoulder) -- so the starters mostly faced makeshift second-string units.
That will show up on film when he reviews the scrimmage, Richt said.
“When I sit and watch the film, I’m going to see the No. 1 units have their way most of the day, and there’ll be some spurts of individuals making some plays with the twos,” Richt said. “But the twos as a group, they didn’t really have a great day, other than the interceptions were big with that No. 2 defensive unit.”
Sheldon Dawson made two interceptions, including one in a one-minute situational drill that he returned for a touchdown. Damian Swann, Brendan Langley, Shaquille Fluker and Austin Herod also picked off passes.
“It was just great being able to move fast, knowing how crucial the game was at the time,” Dawson said. “It was all about being in the right place at the right time.”
Freshman inside linebacker Reggie Carter and sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins led the team with six tackles apiece, with Jenkins also notching three sacks. Outside linebacker T.J. Stripling had three tackles for a loss and a sack and outside linebacker/defensive end Josh Dawson had two sacks.
“We both had big plays,” Josh Dawson said. “I’d say it was a draw. The offense made some big plays, but we made some big plays, also. The offense made some errors and so did we. It was the first scrimmage so you’re going to have those type things.”
The starting offense managed to convert 100 percent of the time in third-down situational work and was efficient when working on the goal line. And the group ran its no-huddle at a blistering pace according to player from both sides.
But Mason said the Bulldogs’ veteran players need to do a better job of emphasizing to the team that scrimmages are a time for urgency. He didn’t see enough fire from his teammates on offense and he thinks the group’s results on Wednesday were a result of that issue.
“We’ve got to be able to push those guys whether you’re a starter or whether you’re a backup,” Mason said. “The defense played better than us today. Some days you have that. Not every day’s going to be great. But you’ve got to come back out and we’ll fix it and we’ll be ready for the next scrimmage.”
Georgia coach Mark Richt said DeLoach should be back for the Bulldogs' Aug. 31 opener at Clemson, though the sophomore will practice for some time with his hand covered by a cast when he returns in the next day or two.
"He knows enough of what to do that I don't think it will [set him back]," Richt said of DeLoach, who watched from the sidelines during Monday's morning practice while wearing a green non-contact jersey. "He can get all the mental reps, as well, so I think he'll be fine."
Freshman outside linebacker Davin Bellamy also sustained a left thumb injury -- a fracture -- during Sunday's practice and was slated for Monday surgery. Bellamy is expected to be healthy in time for the Clemson game, too.
"You've got a lot of hand-to-hand combat in there and your digits get pushed back sometimes and get damaged. So we're going to clean them up with the surgery and club them up to protect them," Richt said. "They'll be practicing relatively soon. You don't miss an awful lot off of that, and then we're hoping by the time the game rolls around, they'll have just about every finger and thumb free."
DeLoach and Bellamy are among a number of young Bulldogs defenders who are dealing with minor injuries early in camp. And that comes at an inopportune time as several of the newcomers are competing to fill holes created by 12 departed regulars from Georgia's 2012 defense.
Freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins was impressive in the first few days of camp, but was sidelined Monday by a groin strain. Freshman safety Tray Matthews -- who claimed a first-team job in the spring -- practiced for the second straight day in a non-contact jersey on Monday after injuring his shoulder. And first-team cornerback Sheldon Dawson continues to practice through a knee injury he sustained in the spring.
"It's not good," Richt said. "But like I told them after practice, that's football. ... You take DeLoach and Bellamy, Davin's the one that's going to have a harder time missing those reps where a veteran missing a day or two won't kill him on a knowledge standpoint.
"But yeah, it is inconvenient for them not to be there and not to get reps. We just hope that they do a great job in meetings, and we do a lot of walkthroughs so most guys can walk and talk through assignments if they can't go full speed so they get as many mental reps as possible."
“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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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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A defense that lost 12 significant players will be a focal point well into the fall, and it was in our post-spring recaps. Let’s take a look at the defensive positions first:
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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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“I was shocked. I would have never guessed that,” said Harvey-Clemons, wearing a wide grin after his Black team rallied to beat the Red 23-17 in Saturday’s G-Day game.
The rising sophomore strong safety figured that Sheldon Dawson, who intercepted three passes before injuring his hamstring and missing G-Day, or early enrollee Tray Matthews, whom teammates lauded for his hard hits in practice, would win the award.
“But I thank God they did give it to me,” he laughed.
It was an easy choice, said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, because of the varying ways that Harvey-Clemons can impact a game. He is the Bulldogs’ starting strong safety in the base 3-4 defense, but can shift to nickelback and outside linebacker in other packages, forcing opponents to account for his whereabouts.
“There’s certain guys on your team that you look for explosive plays out of and I think he’s going to be one of those guys,” Grantham said.