JACKSONVILLE FL - OCTOBER 30: Chris Rainey #3 of the Florida Gators attempts to catcha pass against Shawn Williams #36 of the Georgia Bulldogs during the game at EverBank Field on October 30 2010 in Jacksonville Florida. (Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
With transfers and suspensions shaking up the once-solid secondary, the depth-chart battles of spring and summer have taken on added importance in Athens.
After several seasons wandering in the wilderness under Willie Martinez's soft-zone defensive schemes -- and the zen-like belief that one needed to know neither where the ball was nor be within five yards of an eligible receiver to successfully defend the pass -- Georgia's secondary, like the rest of the defense, made a massive leap forward in 2011. From 51st in the nation in passing D in Martinez's last year, the Dawgs climbed to 10th, allowing a mere 176 yards per game through the air and helping Brandon Boykin on his way to becoming a Jim Thorpe Award finalist. With every major contributor but Boykin returning for 2012, it looked like the unit would continue to wreak havoc on opposing aerial attacks.
Then the Rapture came, and DBs started disappearing. Senior Jakar Hamilton led the exodus just a few weeks into the 2011 season, and sophomore Derek Owens followed a week later. Right after the start of the calendar year, sophomore cornerback Jordan Love announced he, too, was transferring, and less than a month later, freshmen Chris Sanders and Nick Marshall got kicked off the team in connection with theft from a teammate's locker. And the suspensions -- oh, the suspensions: Sanders Commings, domestic battery, two games; Branden Smith, marijuana possession, two games; Bacarri Rambo, also wacky tobacky, as many as four games. The depth situation, at least for the first few weeks of the season, has gotten so dire that Malcolm Mitchell, a freshman phenom at wide receiver last season, spent all of spring practice learning the ropes at defensive back. When sophomore safety Marc Deas changed his mind earlier this week and said he wasn't transferring after all, it felt like a minor victory.
Eventually, Georgia will have a full complement of DBs this season, and based on last year's performance we know they should be pretty good. But spring practice has been as much about which backups will carry the team through the first month of the season as anything else.
1. Shawn Williams, Sr. (6'1", 220)
2. Marc Deas, RSo. (6'1", 197)
3. Connor Norman, RSo. (5'10", 208)
4. Quintavious Harrow, So. (5'11", 183)
1. Bacarri Rambo, Sr. (6'0", 218)
2. Corey Moore, So. (6'2", 207)
Strong safety Williams is Georgia's leading tackler from 2011 and the one starter in the secondary who isn't facing some kind of suspension to begin the 2012 season, so his spot atop the depth chart seems pretty secure. After leading the team with eight interceptions in '11, Rambo's is, too -- or it will be whenever his suspension is up. For now, at least, the talk of Rambo considering the NFL's supplemental draft seems to have subsided, but still, Corey Moore's going to get plenty of reps at that position this summer. With depth at free safety looking a little perilous, both Connor Norman and Quintavious Harrow -- who dished out some nasty hits on special teams last year -- could get juggled between the two safety slots until the coaches find a combination they're comfortable with.
1. Branden Smith, Sr. (5'11", 176)
2. Blake Sailors, RJr. (5'11", 186)
3. Malcolm Mitchell, So. (6'1", 184)
With Sanders Commings gone for the first two games of the season, Dream Teamers Swann and Bowman will duke it out for playing time over the next few months, with Swann having the inside edge after appearing in 11 games last year -- though the coaches agree Bowman learned a lot and developed rapidly while wearing his redshirt in 2011. On the other side, Blake Sailors has gone from walk-on to redshirt-freshman special-teams contributor to appearing in all 14 games as a sophomore last season, and the coaches appear more and more confident about letting him handle a starting job in Branden Smith's place. The question mark is Malcolm Mitchell -- he's said all the right things about wanting to be Georgia's first regular two-way player since Champ Bailey, and he's certainly got the skill set to do it, but it remains to be seen just how willing Mark Richt will be to subjecting his emerging superstar to the rigors of pass defense.