ATHENS — Georgia’s first-team cornerback, at least during a drill in spring practice Saturday, is a freshman academically who as recently as nine months ago was playing wide receiver.
Mark Webb may or may not stick to that first team. But it sounds like he will stick at cornerback, and at this point he’s definitely in the starting mix. And he’s someone the staff thinks it can count on.
“Oh yeah. We’re going to have to count on him and some of the younger players to grow up,” coach Kirby Smart said after practice Saturday. “I think Mark’s physicality, the one unique thing about Mark is he’s a good tackler, and that is not always a great trait for some corners. So he’s physical, he’s a good tackler, he really wants to learn the defense.”
Webb was seen working with the first team at cornerback during a pursuit drill at practice Saturday. Tyrique McGhee, who started two games at cornerback last season, was at nickelback.
There will be other options to start at cornerback opposite of returning starter and senior Deandre Baker. One could be McGhee, presuming someone else ends up at star. Sophomore Ameer Speed, who was working as the second-team cornerback Saturday, could be another, as well as incoming 5-star recruit Tyson Campbell.
Webb’s ascent is notable given his background. He did play both ways in high school, but he was listed as a receiver when he signed with Georgia, and that’s where he played until late into preseason practice in August.
“I think it was a necessity too because Mark is going to be a good player,” said Georgia assistant coach James Coley, who was the receivers coach last season, earlier this year. “He’s got to stay hard on this stuff. There’s work he has to put into it. He’s a football player.”
Webb played in 13 games last season, mostly on special teams, but did get in some blowouts on defense. He was still feeling his way around at cornerback, at least at the college level.
“I think some of the complexities, we did him a disservice that first summer playing wideout and then flipping him over,” Smart said. “So he’s getting to where he’s comfortable at corner, and then all of a sudden, boom, we drop star on him. So it’s put him at a disadvantage, but we would rather him go through spring practice with a disadvantage, and then in fall allow him to be a corner if we’ve settled on a star by then.”
Webb signed in the same class with a number of defensive backs, all of whom are trying to make a move this spring. The opportunities may be stronger at cornerback and star than in the back end.
Junior J.R. Reed and sophomore Richard LeCounte have been working with the first team at safety, with Reed entrenched and LeCounte seemingly in good shape. Senior Jarvis Wilson offers experience, and then there are members of the 2017 class: William Poole, Tray Bishop and Latavious Brini.
Poole was working with the second team at nickelback on Saturday. Bishop was second team at safety, while Brini was third team.
Bishop and Brini are hearing it every day from Smart, the coach said.
“Those are two guys I challenge every day. If you go ask them, I know y’all don’t talk to those guys, but they probably wouldn’t like me right now because I’m riding them,” Smart said. “Our depth at safety is a very serious concern. They are part of that depth. They’re not ready to play yet.
“I don’t necessarily think they should be ready to play but they should be on their way because where they were unique last year. You didn’t see them play, but they took a ton of reps in practice. The growth hasn’t been what I want to see out of he and Brini. So I challenge them every day, ‘Are you going to get where we can trust you to put you in the game? Because you are one play away,’ and we’re not where we need to be there.”