With a significant number of starters returning on both sides of the ball, Georgia has only a handful of positions that should provide much preseason drama. Replacing three offensive line starters is probably the biggest job, but the depth is there to make it an area of interest rather than panic. We’ll also be watching how a number of talented players work back in to their respective positions after injuries, but those stories might not play out until August.
One position that has come to the forefront is safety. Georgia returns everyone but Connor Norman and Marc Deas, and several of the players who ended up with most of the playing time in 2013 were underclassmen. At first glance, it’s not a position where you’d expect much turnover or recruiting emphasis.
Mauger and Matthews were thrown to the fire as true freshmen, and each had the ups and downs you’d expect. Moore is the most experienced, but he now enters his senior year without a firm grip on a starting spot. Harvey-Clemons made an impact at the hybrid “star” position in his first season with significant playing time. Matthews and Harvey-Clemons have the recruiting pedigree to suggest that they’re the future of the position, but even they have some uncertainty.
The first uncertainty is size. We saw it with Alec Ogletree, eventually with Thomas Davis in the NFL, and even with Paris Bostick, a 2013 incoming freshman safety. As defensive ends sometimes grow into tackles, big safeties can become quick linebackers. Matthews doesn’t plan on moving to linebacker, but he admits that has the frame to get bigger and will have to concentrate on adding lean muscle. Harvey-Clemons is already imposing at 6’5″ and handled some linebacker responsibilities in his “star” role. If Pruitt approaches the “star” position differently or prefers a more typical nickel back, Harvey-Clemons could find himself in a tweener spot between safety and linebacker, and the reasonable course there is to put on the size needed to move to linebacker.
The other uncertainty is more unpleasant, but it’s a reality that we also had to face with Ogletree. Harvey-Clemons will miss the first three games as part of a four-game suspension that kept him out of the bowl game. He had already missed the 2013 season opener as the result of a one-game suspension. If this most recent suspension is also drug-related, Harvey-Clemons has two strikes before he’s even started his junior season. Hopefully he’ll get the help he needs and eventually graduate, but another incident could create a tough decision for Mark Richt. As it is now, Richt and Pruitt have to come up with a Plan B for at least the first three games.
During bowl practices we learned that redshirt freshman Tramel Terry would move from receiver to safety. Terry spent the 2013 recovering from knee surgery, but he was one of the bigger signings of the 2013 recruiting class. His versatility and athleticism made him a candidate to contribute on either side of the ball, a la Malcolm Mitchell. Terry spent the regular season as a receiver during his rehab. Coach Richt indicated that the move to safety was permanent – at least as far as these things go.
About the same time as Terry’s move, we learned that JUCO transfer Shaquille Fluker would leave the program in search of playing time. Georgia’s medical staff was concerned about Fluker’s condition after a seizure and would not clear him to participate. Fluker didn’t play in 2013, but his medical status and ultimate transfer cost Georgia a more experienced option at safety.
There have also been some developments in recruiting. Georgia has a single safety commitment, Kendall Gant of Lakeland, Fla, alongside three and possibly four cornerback commitments. Gant is reported to have academic concerns and might be headed for prep school. Since the arrival of new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, the Dawgs have turned up the heat on a couple of safety prospects. Tavon Ross is a Missouri commitment from Bleckley County who has emerged as a priority. The Dawgs are also trying to make a late push with Tampa’s T.J. Harrell but will have ground to make up against Louisville and Michigan St. Georgia just recently offered and got a commitment from Tucker’s Dominick Sanders who could play either cornerback or safety but is most likely a cornerback. Whether it’s the uncertainty of Gant’s academics or a need perceived by the new staff after evaluating the current roster, the addition of another safety to the recruiting class has become a priority.
Improving the secondary is one of the biggest tasks for Pruitt as both the coordinator and the defensive backs coach. Due to suspensions and injuries, we saw new combinations at safety in nearly every game. We’ll see more of that in the first month of the 2014 season as Harvey-Clemons serves his suspension. Beyond that, can Pruitt bring some consistency to the position and develop the kind of sustained production we’ve seen from some of Mark Richt’s better secondaries?