ATHENS, Ga. -- After losing their security blanket at safety, Todd Grantham and Scott Lakatos had to weigh their options at the position for the first time in a long while.
Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams started 80 percent of Georgia’s games (66 of a possible 82 starts) at the two safety positions since defensive coordinator Grantham and defensive backs coach Lakatos arrived on campus in 2010. So this spring might have felt like a throwback to the coaches’ first few months in Athens when they had to evaluate which young players were mentally and physically prepared to guard the back line of the Bulldogs’ defense.
“I want to see what they can do and how they can learn it and what they can handle because the days of just lining up and playing are gone,” Grantham said. “You’ve got to be able to affect the game with lost-yardage plays and pressures and things like that and your safeties have got to be really involved in that kind of stuff. So we’ve just got to continue to work and see what they can handle and then we’ll develop our game plans as we move forward from that.”
The good news for Georgia’s coaches is that two players with the athleticism to do those things -- Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews -- pushed into the lead for starting positions this spring. The bad news is that Harvey-Clemons, a sophomore, and Matthews, a true freshman who enrolled in January, have never started a college game and have a long way to go before they develop the knowledge and experience base that Williams and Rambo possessed.
Grantham said at Wednesday’s UGA Day meeting in Atlanta that he is not particularly concerned about their inexperience, however, because of the way they performed during spring practice. Harvey-Clemons was the Bulldogs’ defensive MVP of the spring and Matthews’ big hits generated major buzz among the coaches and players.
“Tray’s a guy that he’s a good tackler in space, he’s got good ball skills, he’s physical,” Grantham said. “He actually knocked two guys out in three scrimmages. The only problem is one of them was a defensive guy.”
Nonetheless, safety is one of the most detail-oriented positions on the defense, so young safeties have to do a lot more than drop a receiver with a bone-crushing hit before Lakatos’ uneasiness about playing them in important situations subsides.
“[I watch] when they can get lined up, number one, and communicate with the rest of the team depending on the situation,” Lakatos said. “And when the offense starts moving people around, are they going to be able to handle the adjustments that we have to make? And once a guy can prove he can do that, then that’s when you start to feel a little more comfortable.”
In a matter of weeks, Georgia’s list of options at safety will grow once signees Shaquille Fluker, Kennar Johnson and Paris Bostick enroll in Athens for summer classes. Asked to name a few defensive newcomers that he’s excited to evaluate in preseason practice, Grantham named Fluker and Johnson before anyone else because he believes the junior college transfers “can have an immediate impact.”
“I think all of them have some upside and a skill set that they can help us,” Grantham said, also mentioning Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley as new cornerbacks who he will be excited to observe. “So I really look forward to all of them, but particularly the defensive back kind of guys.”
The reason for the intrigue is obvious since five of the Bulldogs’ eight defensive back signees are not yet on campus, and there is plenty of playing time available thanks to the departures of Williams, Rambo, Branden Smith and Sanders Commings.
Newcomers and young players will almost certainly fill a large portion of that void -- if they can prove to Grantham and Lakatos during preseason practice that they know where to be and have the ability to make the proper play once they arrive.
“We need to get roles established as soon as possible so we can get ready for the season. But a lot of that depends on how guys progress,” Lakatos said. “The more situations that we can create out there through practice and scrimmages and those type of things, the better we’ll have an idea of where they stand once the other guys get here, the May and June graduates.
“Then we’ll kind of put them in and see how they handle all the stuff without the benefit of spring practice. But we’re certainly going to give them opportunities and give them a lot of work when we start practicing in the summer and see where we go after 29 practices.”