Freshman DBs' time is nearly here

ATHENS, Ga. -- Josh Harvey-Clemons and Sheldon Dawson aren’t accustomed to riding the bench, so the freshman defensive backs were forced to swallow their pride this fall.

As members of a Georgia secondary that featured four valued seniors -- safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams and cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith -- the freshmen eventually had to accept that they probably would not crack the rotation this fall. Not that such a reality was easy to accept.

“It was real hard,” said Harvey-Clemons, whom ESPN listed as the No. 17 overall prospect, the top outside linebacker and the top player in the state of Georgia when he signed with the Bulldogs in February. “I’m not going to lie to you, I had some nights where I was like, ‘Man, I’m going home.’ I’d come in and call my granddad and talk to my people and they just told me to keep playing and my time’s going to come.”

With the seniors preparing to play their final college game in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day, Harvey-Clemons’ time might very well be imminent.

He opened his career as a reserve safety, and there is more than enough playing time to go around with only cornerback Damian Swann returning among the starters. But Georgia coach Mark Richt insisted that 2013 playing time is completely up for grabs in the secondary -- particularly with a large group of defensive backs preparing to sign with Georgia in this recruiting class.

“I have no earthly idea who’s going to play DB for us next year based on the maturity level of the group that we have here right now. I don’t think they’re mature enough to be the starters,” Richt said after practice this week. “And I told them, ‘You’re competing with guys that aren’t even here yet. And we’re recruiting our tails off and we’re going to bring some guys in here and you guys are here and we’re going to compete and we’re going to see who really belongs back there because don’t think just because you’re next in line it’s your job because you’ve got to earn it. Just know that on the front end.’ ”

And that’s not even to say that Harvey-Clemons will play defensive back next season. Listed at 6-foot-5 and 207 pounds, the wiry freshman looks more like a basketball player than a defensive player in football. Should he add weight during the offseason, he might play outside linebacker or even inside linebacker, but it’s just as possible that he will remain in the secondary.

“It doesn’t really matter to me,” he said of a position preference for 2013. “I just want to be out there.”

There is no such mystery with Dawson. He figures to duke it out with Swann, Devin Bowman and a host of signees for playing time at cornerback -- and it’s highly possible that the talented freshman from Memphis will get a heavy dose of on-field experience in the fall.

Take receiver (and onetime cornerback) Malcolm Mitchell’s word for it.

“He’s going to be a great player. Just watch him,” Mitchell recently told reporters, referring to Dawson. “I see it. And I don’t think y’all have heard me say that often. I tell y’all I see good players, but I see something really different in him.”

As with Harvey-Clemons, Dawson’s contributions were mostly limited to special teams this season. Harvey-Clemons has appeared in all 13 games and has 13 tackles, while Dawson has played in 12 games and made 11 stops.

But Dawson also understood his role as a freshman in a senior-laden secondary and is focused on seizing his opportunity now that the veterans are nearly ready to begin preparing for their futures in the NFL.

“Our seniors actually can play and that’s why they played, but there’s no such thing as like, ‘He’s a senior, so he’ll start over him,’ or something like that,” Dawson said. “These couple [bowl] practices, I do have a chance to just go and show and just practice.

“I’ve been getting a lot of reps, but I just look at it as getting better every day and I’ll let everything play itself out. Because if I just take care of what I’ve got to take care of -- I make a lot of mistakes, but I just feel that if I can just keep learning from my mistakes and actually learning and just progressing, then everything will work itself out.”

Offseason workouts and spring practice will be a key time for players such as Dawson, Bowman, Harvey-Clemons and safety Corey Moore to prove to the coaching staff that they deserve to be on the field. Because as Richt mentioned, “they haven’t proved it to me yet. I hope they do. I love them and I want them to be the very best they can be, but they’ve got to earn it” -- particularly with a large group of defensive back signees preparing to join the team.

But Dawson insisted that he plans to help the newcomers adjust to their new surroundings, just as this season’s seniors did for him when he arrived at Georgia in the summer.

Dawson knows that the turnover in the secondary and throughout the starting lineup will create offseason questions about Georgia’s rebuilding defense, but he thinks the combination of old and new blood will surprise people next fall.

“People look at it like if you’re young, then it’s not just going to be as good. But I think the players who do have experience that’s coming in next year are great players,” he said.

“And then you’ve got a teacher in [defensive coordinator Todd] Grantham. He’s our coach, but he’s actually a teacher. He teaches you whatever you need to know. I went to him today off of something I needed from him on the field and he automatically helped me with it. We got it out the way and now, not to say I mastered it, but I understand what was going on. But we’ve got great leadership and we’ve got great coaches.”