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(Bob Andres/AJC)
Safeties J.R. Reed (20) and Richard LeCounte have played a ton of games together at the back end of Georgia's defense, where they've often been joined by nickelback Tyrique McGhee. Between the three, they bring 52 starts and 94 games of experience into the 2019 season.

Georgia’s ‘Triple Threat’ at safety must first survive an intense competition under a new coach

PRE-SPRING FOOTBALL ANALYSIS

Part XV: The Safeties

This is Part 15 in a series breaking down and analyzing each position group for the Georgia Bulldogs in advance of spring football practice, which is scheduled to begin on March 19.

ATHENS — Richard LeCounte, Tyrique McGhee and J.R. Reed have played together so much, they probably ought to have a nickname. Call them the “Three Amigos,” or perhaps something more sinister sounding like “Triple Threat” or “Trilogy of Terror.”

Whatever you want to call them, Georgia’s trio of returning starters at the safety positions have played a lot of ball together. Between them, they’ve seen action in 94 career games, including 52 starts. Many of those starts have come together the last two seasons. Last year they took field together first seven times. Now a senior, Reed started every game the last two seasons, 29 in all. LeCounte was next to him for 13 of those last year.

Generally that’s a good thing. There is no substitute for experience and the familiarity and intimate knowledge of coach Kirby Smart’s defensive system between those three is through the roof at this point. That said, Smart is always quick to say that there is no guarantee when it comes to playing time. His goal is to recruit “over” current players every year and let competition and performance sort out who gets to spend the most time on the field.

To date, the Fearsome Threesome has been the best option. But each member of that trio has been getting pushed to varying degrees at their respective position. That figures to intensify this spring.

  • Reed is probably the safest. The Bulldogs’ starter at right safety — Georgia no longer refers to it as “strong” and “free safety” — not only has been tremendously productive with 66 tackles last year and 145 over the last two seasons, but he also serves as a defensive captain and team spokesperson. As such, Reed has been on the field for almost every snap. Only Christopher Smith, a rising sophomore, has logged anything approaching a notable number of reps.
  • LeCounte (5-11, 190), who mans the left safety spot, led the Bulldogs in tackles last year with 74 and had an interception and 29-yard return against Alabama in the SEC Championship Game. But he was getting challenged late last season by Otis Reese, a 6-3, 210-pound rising sophomore who’s combination of size and speed excites new secondary coach Charlton Warren.
  • McGhee gets on the field as Georgia’s “Star,” or nickelback. It’s a position that requires great versatility as the star gets heavily involved in both pass coverage and run support. The 5-10, 187-pound McGhee held his own in that regard, recording 23 tackles and an interception while also getting one of his seven starts at cornerback. But McGhee was getting pushed late in the year by the 6-1, 200-pound Mark Webb, who will be a junior this fall.

Other lettermen, such as juniors Ameer Speed and William Poole and sophomore Christopher Smith, are also fighting to get in the mix. The thinking is that Georgia needs to get bigger at a position where current starters average 5-11 in height and 188 pounds.

But so far, Georgia’s “Tremendous Trio” has taken down all comers. If they’re able to do that again this season, they’ll definitely deserve a nickname. And a good one this time.

Here’s breakdown of the back third of Georgia’s defense:

THE SAFETIES

  • Returning starters (3): Left safety — Richard LeCounte III, 5-foot-11, 185 pounds, junior; right safety — J.R. Reed, 6-1, 194, senior; star/nickel — Tyrique McGhee, 5-10, 187, senior
  • Others returning: Mark Webb, 6-1, 200, junior; Otis Reese, 6-3, 210, sophomore; Christopher Smith, 5-11, 180, So.; William Poole, 6-0, 190, junior; Ameer Speed, 6-3, 211, Jr.; Hugh Nelson, 6-2, 198, RFr.; Jake Skole, 6-2, 215, RSo.; Cameron Hill, 6-1, 181, RFr.
  • Early enrollees: Lewis Cine, 6-1, 185, Fr.; D.J. Daniel, 6-1, 185, Jr.
  • On the way: None known.
  • Analysis: Counting walkons, Georgia has about 22 defensive backs who will suit up with the team this spring. That includes corners as well as safeties. But with Charlton Warren coming from Florida as the Bulldogs’ new DBs coach, nothing is set in stone. There might be safeties that become corners, corners that become safeties and either one of them could end up logging time at the star position. But building depth at the two traditional safety positions will be a priority as the Bulldogs have encountered some significant attrition of late. The troubled Deangelo Gibbs, a former 5-star prospect, has transferred to Tennessee, where he will be immediately eligible. Likewise, Tray Bishop, a former 4-star recruit who would’ve been a redshirt sophomore, is currently sitting unclaimed in the transfer while he awaits the outcome of a serious legal matter. Those two third-year players were expected to be filling consequential roles at this point. Not coincidentally, Georgia remains somewhat undersized overall in the back third of its defense and will look to get bigger.
  • Bottom line: Georgia caught a break when Reed opted to become a fifth-year senior rather than enter the NFL draft like so many of his teammates did. His experience and leadership gives the Bulldogs’ secondary a strong foundation on which to build no matter how the position battles shake out around him. LeCounte remains one of the best overall athletes in the entire secondary and seemed to have been just nanoseconds away from making some huge plays last season. But too often LeCounte came up short, and his competition with Reese will be one of the most intriguing position battles to watch this spring. The options are limitless for Georgia’s famous star position, starting with the veteran McGhee but continuing through a myriad of possibilities. Whether the safeties remain status quo or Warren initiates a major shake-up, safety is expected to be a team strength for the 2019 Bulldogs.

UP NEXT: Georgia lost a ton of experience off its coaching staff. Will anybody notice?

SPRING FOOTBALL SERIES