MACON, Ga. -- With Josh Harvey-Clemons suspended for Georgia’s opener against Clemson, the Bulldogs must now determine not only who will fill his spot at strong safety in the base defense, but who will man the nickelback/star role when they utilize five defensive backs at once.
Certainly defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos will audition a number of players in that spot when the Bulldogs open preseason practice, but he has the luxury of being able to use a veteran nickelback, junior cornerback Damian Swann, if necessary.
“That position, I played it the whole year, so I know pretty much everything that I need to know about it. So if they need me to go back and play it, I will because I know it,” said Swann, who started all 14 games last fall in a secondary that opened the last two seasons without a suspended starter.
“And I think the situation with Josh, it happened and it hasn’t been the first time that we’ve gone into a season opener with guys suspended, so I think that’s something we don’t want to deal with, but we’ve kind of gotten used to dealing with it and we’ve just got to go and play.”
Bulldogs coach Mark Richt confirmed last week that sophomore Harvey-Clemons will serve a one-game suspension following a marijuana-related incident last month in his dorm room. Speaking to the media Tuesday for the first time since announcing the suspension, Richt said the incident was unfortunate. “I think Josh is learning a tough lesson and I think he’ll recover and have a tremendous career with us, but right now I’m sure it’s tough on him,” he said. He also said that Harvey-Clemons has no more game experience than many of his potential replacements against Clemson.
“Now other guys are going to get their chance to go compete for that spot and have a chance to start and have a chance to play,” Richt said at the Peach State Pigskin Preview at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. “No matter who’s back there, they’re going to be a fairly inexperienced football player, so I don’t know if there’s going to be a huge difference or not.”
Both Swann and Richt mentioned Connor Norman as a candidate at star and safety. During spring practice, Norman split time with Corey Moore at strong safety in the nickel defense when Harvey-Clemons moved to the star position. Norman started the first two games last season at safety and also knows the star role, Swann said.
“It’s not really too many other guys that have taken the reps that I’ve taken or that Josh has taken in the spring besides Connor Norman,” Swann said. “But it’s plenty of guys that we feel can play that position.”
Several signees arrive on campus this week, so new candidates will certainly get an opportunity to learn the jobs in the Bulldogs’ summer 7-on-7 passing sessions. Richt mentioned Shaq Fluker, Paris Bostick and Moore as candidates to play star, while others such as Shaq Wiggins or Brendan Langley might find their way into the competition.
Regardless of who wants to learn the nickel role from a seasoned veteran, Swann said he would be happy to teach them.
“Anybody who’s willing to learn it, anybody who coach wants me to teach it to, I’m going to teach it to them because me, I’m going to be a team player and I want somebody who’s going to be there who wants to learn so we can win,” he said.
Georgia’s secondary already faced experience questions entering the season, so losing Harvey-Clemons -- the defensive MVP of spring practice -- for the opener only increases the uncertainty.
Richt, however, said that is simply going to be the case throughout a defense that lost 12 key players to graduation and the NFL draft. The key will be formulating a plan to neutralize that potential problem.
“I don’t think there’s any doubt we’ll have the talent base, but that position is going to be a lot like a lot of other parts of our defense -- talented, excited, athletic, but inexperienced,” Richt said. “What we’ve got to do is understand that as our defense jells and as our defense plays these high-level games early in the year, there’s going to be some mistakes made. We’ve got to try to minimize the mistakes and try to overcome any mistakes that come along the way as a team.
“A lot of times defensively, ways to overcome inexperience is to get turnovers, is to do a good job disrupting the ball and things of that nature. It’s going to be hard to know how good we can be until we’ve played three or four games, probably.”