Spring a big opportunity for Matthews

ATHENS, Ga. -- Perhaps it says something about the seasoning of Georgia’s 2013 defense, or lack thereof, that safety will actually not be the Bulldogs’ least-experienced position.

Nose guard takes that dubious honor. And yet with the departure of a pair of essential seniors Shawn Williams and Bacarri Rambo, the back end of the defense will face just as many questions when spring practice opens in early March.

U.S. Army All-American Tray Matthews -- who graduated from Newnan (Ga.) High School early and enrolled at Georgia this month -- hopes he can provide some answers.

“It was tough to leave my high school friends and give up my senior year of basketball, but I have to focus on my future,” Matthews told DawgNation recently. “Who would not want to get in early when both safeties are going to the NFL and I have a chance to get one of those spots?”

Rambo started every game in which he was eligible to play over the last three seasons -- 36 out of 41 overall -- and left college with a share of Georgia’s career interceptions record with 16. Williams started 27 out of 28 games over the last two seasons and played a key role in stabilizing a secondary riddled with depth issues at the start of the season.

Former walk-on Connor Norman started the first two games of 2012 while Rambo served a suspension and sophomore Corey Moore started once (as a blocker on offense), but the six safeties on Georgia’s roster have otherwise contributed little other than on special teams and in mop-up duty. And one of them, freshman Josh Harvey-Clemons, might not even play safety this fall.

Such is the uncertainty that exists as Matthews and fellow early enrollee Quincy Mauger (Marietta, Ga./Kell) prepare for their first spring practice at Georgia and perhaps active roles on the defense this the fall.

“I hope to show the coaching staff and the country that I am a college-level player as a true freshman and able to compete at a high level during the spring,” Matthews said.

Georgia’s coaching staff already seems convinced of those capabilities, as were the numerous major programs who offered scholarships to Matthews, including Alabama, Michigan, Auburn, Ohio State and Virginia Tech. Matthews -- whom ESPN rates as the nation’s No. 129 overall prospect and No. 10 safety -- stuck to his months-old commitment to the Bulldogs when he enrolled this month.

Bulldogs defensive coordinator Todd Grantham sees Matthews as an eventual replacement for Rambo at free safety.

“Tray is a versatile athlete. I think he’s got a very good skillset to him as a free safety,” Grantham said. “He played some quarterback in high school and he’s got very good range and is very athletic tackling in the open field. He’s got ball skills. He’s a guy that’s a good communicator.

“He can play either safety position because of his size and his physicalness, but because of his athletic ability and his skillset, he would play the position that Rambo played.”

Now it’s simply a question of how quickly Matthews can begin filling those highly accomplished shoes. Rambo redshirted in his first season on campus and started only three games in 2009 before becoming a mainstay in the lineup as a sophomore.

Harvey-Clemons enjoyed an outstanding preseason and possesses athletic tools that few players on Georgia’s defense can match, and yet he barely played beyond special-teams duty as a freshman except during the fourth quarter of blowouts.

Harvey-Clemons, Moore, Norman and Marc Deas have the advantage of experience over Matthews, Mauger and safety commits Shaq Fluker (Meridian, Miss./East Mississippi Community College), Kennar Johnson (Clermont, Fla./Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College) and Paris Bostick (Tampa, Fla./Plant), who would join the Bulldogs this summer if they follow through on their commitments on signing day and qualify.

So it will be up to the newcomers to instill Grantham and defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos with confidence that they deserve playing time over players who have had more time on campus to absorb their responsibilities in the defensive scheme. Simply by being on campus for offseason conditioning and spring and summer workouts is a major advantage for Matthews, Georgia’s highest-rated safety commit.

“I think my chances of playing this fall are high because of my expectations and the goals I have set for myself,” Matthews said. “I came in here early for the academics, as well as getting a head start on the training and lifting weights. I plan to work hard and let the chips fall where they may.”