Safety still a mystery for Bulldogs

Mark Richt still won't say if Bacarri Rambo will be reinstated against Missouri, meaning that Connor Norman could get the call again. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

ATHENS, Ga. -- Connor Norman won’t deny that his first college start was imperfect. It remains highly unclear whether there will be a second.

Georgia coach Mark Richt continues to dodge questions about when All-America free safety Bacarri Rambo -- who led the SEC and was second nationally with eight interceptions last season -- will return from suspension. If he’s out again for Saturday’s high-stakes visit to Missouri, Norman appears likely to remain in the starting lineup.

“Overall Connor did a good job,” Richt said after Saturday’s season-opening 45-23 win against Buffalo. “I can think of one play where he missed a tackle out there in space, but you know just about every safety in America is going to miss a tackle here and there when you’ve got too much space with a back.

“But he does a great job of knowing what to do, getting lined up. He is a sure tackler when he fits up into the responsibility of doing that. And I think he’s got good ball skills, too. So we like what he’s doing.”

If there is anything that gives Norman an advantage over some of his teammates, it’s his understanding of his role in the defense. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham regularly credits the former walk-on -- who last month was awarded a scholarship for the first time -- for that facet of his game.

“I study the playbook a lot,” Norman said after Monday’s practice. “I care a lot about the defense and knowing where to be and where to line up and I feel like the coaches can trust me in that sense that I will know where to be on the field.”

That does not mean the Buffalo game was a particularly smooth debut, however. Georgia’s defense had its rocky moments and Norman admitted to dealing with some butterflies before playing a significant role for the first time at Georgia. He played a key role on special teams before, but the Buffalo game was his first start and he matched his career high with four tackles.

“[I need to improve] in every sense of the game because that is a big change for me,” Norman said. “To be out there starting and playing every play. It was hot Saturday and I was obviously nervous. I feel like that’s expected because you’re playing around such great guys out there. I feel like I need to step up my game when I’m playing, too, because I’m playing around such great players.”

Regardless, it is apparent that Georgia’s coaching staff is more comfortable with Norman on the field than it is with sophomore Corey Moore, who played sparingly against Buffalo. Moore and fellow safeties Shawn Williams and Josh Harvey-Clemons did not appear for post-practice interviews on Monday to illuminate how they feel the position battle stands, so Richt’s comments will have to speak for them.

“We’re thankful that we’ve got [Norman] and that he’s playing well and we hope Corey continues to push hard for playing time. But right now we think Connor’s more ready to play,” Richt said.

Grantham’s post-game comments aligned with Richt’s assessment, as he said Norman and cornerback Damian Swann both performed adequately while playing heavy minutes for the first time.

He knows he’ll have starting cornerback Sanders Commings back after the Missouri game, hopes injured cornerback Malcolm Mitchell’s injured ankle will recover in time for this weekend’s game and isn’t saying about Rambo. So it’s possible that Grantham will ask the two youngsters to contribute heavily again -- and they must perform consistently against the Tigers’ high-powered offense.

“I thought Connor did a nice job. I think Damian Swann is going to be fine. And all of them at times did things that you like,” Grantham said. “That’s part of being young is understanding things that happened and why they happened and making yourself better.

“So what we’ll do is we’ll take a hard look at the things we do, or what we ask them to do, and we’ll make sure that we’re all on the same page and moving forward, we’ll play better.”