The statistics say that Georgia gave up the second fewest passing yards in the SEC last season so with all but one starter returning in the secondary, things are looking up for the Bulldogs on the back end, right?
“I know everybody thinks we’ve got all these guys coming back but we’ve got to play better,” coach Kirby Smart said. “We’ve got some big guys up front and we’ve got some linebackers that can run, but we haven’t played to the level that I think we’re capable of in the secondary. And we really don’t have the guys behind them in the right places yet playing really good football.”
So there is something to chew on if you are a Georgia defensive back finishing up the camp portion of preseason practice this week.
Even for a fifth-year senior like Aaron Davis, who has started 30 games for Georgia and has practiced at safety, nickel back and cornerback.
“I think it’s the truth,” Davis said. “Whatever he says, I surely believe it. I don’t think he’s blowing smoke out here at all. I think we can pick it up even more. We can definitely push ourselves, we can challenge ourselves to be even better than we are.”
It’s hard to be complacent in the secondary given how last season went for the team overall.
“Just because we have returners doesn’t mean that we’ll actually be good,” Davis said. “It’s the same guys returning and we were 7-5 last year, 8-5 or whatever last year.”
Safety Dominick Sanders, another senior, said Georgia “is trying to be the toughest, most physical secondary in the SEC and the country.”
Smart, a former first team All-SEC safety in his own right at Georgia, may have a point about the secondary needing to be better. Georgia ranked just sixth in the SEC and 37th nationally in pass efficiency defense and while its 15 interceptions were tied for 22nd in the nation, it returned just one for a touchdown.
“I think we need to be getting more turnovers than we did last year,” Davis said. “That’s a big goal for us as far finishing interceptions and not just getting PBUs (pass break ups). and stripping at the ball, things like that that can change the momentum of the game and give the offense a bigger effect.”
Freshman Deangelo Gibbs has been competing at the nickel spot vacated when Alabama graduate transfer Maurice Smith’s one season ended, but the other freshmen have a ways to go.
Richard LeCounte is a backup safety and Ameer Speed, Tray Bishop, Latavious Brini, William Poole and Eric Stokes are part of a group that is giving Georgia more size on the back end for the future but are still finding their way.
“It’s concerning that we don’t have the depth needed,” Smart said. “We have a void in our secondary. We have old and we have young. We have nothing in the middle. It’s really concerning. We’re having to move guys around.”
That even includes outside linebacker Lorenzo Carter matching up on wide receivers at times in certain offensive looks.
“We don’t know who that one spot that may lose an injury and you don’t know where your depth is going to be,” Smart said. “These freshmen have not shown up in the secondary to make themselves ready to play like maybe a running back has or a wide receiver has or a different position might have.”
Said Davis: “We definitely need depth, we need the freshmen to do everything they can. We expect them to be pushing us to try and get our spots. We should expect nothing less for them. Whether that happens or not is going to be completely up to them, completely up the people running with the ones right now.”
That has included Tulsa transfer J.R. Reed who could secure a starting safety spot alongside Dominick Sanders which would allow Davis to play the nickel. Sophomore Tyrique McGhee and junior Jarvis Wilson are also competing there.
Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker are returning starters at cornerback who are also being challenged.
“We still have room for improvement in the secondary and I keep on harping about,” Smart said early this preseason. ”It doesn’t matter if you’ve started 100 games, it matters how you play.”
Sanders believes Smart is just trying to get the most out of the secondary by his frankness publicly.
“I just look at that as motivation for us,” Sanders said. “He sees a lot in us. We’re not going to be perfect but each and every day we’ve got to compete and get better.”