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Sat, 11/27 on ABC @5:00 ET
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Georgia’s most important players of 2017: Anatomy of the star

Georgia-Bill Belichick-Kirby Smart
Kirby Smart, left, and Bill Belichick, right, caught up at UGA's pro day last year.

ATHENS, Ga. — Aaron Davis, Tyrique McGhee and DeAngelo Gibbs are competing this year to man the position that got its name because of Bill Belichick.

At least that’s how the story goes, as told a few years ago by Nick Saban, who in the 1990s was an up-and-coming assistant on Belichick’s staff with the Cleveland Browns. Back then, and for many to this day, the third cornerback spot is called the nickelback. But Belichick, the defensive genius, wanted to use it in a bit of a different way.

The nickelback would also have some linebacker duties. It would be a hybrid. So Belichick wanted to call it something else, and wanted a term that started with an S, because it was basically the Sam linebacker. (For the same reason, the Money position — the cornerback in a dime — started with an M, because it was akin to the Mike linebacker.)

“Everything that Bill Belichick does has some purpose,” Saban said during a press conference in 2012.

So at some point somebody came up with “star,” and through the years that hybrid spot gained that moniker, and was used earlier this decade at Georgia with Leonard Floyd and Josh Harvey-Clemons.

But the proliferation of up-tempo, spread-out offenses has gradually led to teams simply using it as a third cornerback, the original use of the position, just a better tackler, blitzer and cover guy in the middle of the field. The nickel defense is basically the base defense. But the use of the term “star” remains.

In his first year as Georgia’s coach, Kirby Smart imported Alabama’s Maurice Smith to be the star, and he excelled. He also had one year of eligibility, and his backup Rico McGraw transferred. That left a gaping hole — the only open starting position on Georgia’s defense.

In the old days of football, this one open spot wouldn’t be that big a deal. In these days, it is.


Star (nickelback)

WHY HE’S IMPORTANT: Georgia has everything else set on defense. It has a deep and talented defensive line. It has four established linebackers who are so good their backups could start on many SEC teams. Most of the secondary is set as well, from Dominick Sanders at free safety to cornerbacks Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker. The only remaining questions are whether Davis will again start at safety or move down to the star. Davis, a fifth-year senior who has been a starter the past three years, brings experience wherever he goes. But if he’s the star, will he be as consistent and effective as he’s been at cornerback and safety? What if the coaches go with McGhee or Gibbs, either of whom would be a first-time starter?

FACTOID: McGhee was given the defensive Hugh Hendrix Award, of the player who most “strains his potential.” The winners on offense were receiver Terry Godwin and offensive lineman Pat Allen.

BEST CASE: Whoever gets the job keeps it the entire season, as Smith did, bringing stability to this lone open spot on defense. As for who wins it, Davis staying at safety would bring the most stability, because if he moves to star that essentially means two new starters. 

WORST CASE: No one grabs the job during the preseason, the star becomes a revolving door, it has a domino effect on the rest of the secondary and the defense, and costs the Bulldogs big plays and big games.

FINAL WORD: Davis is the savvy veteran, McGhee is the young kid who’s gotten his feet wet, and Gibbs is the high-upside rookie. It presents an interesting choice for Mel Tucker and Smart to make.

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