ATHENS – In the nearly two years now that Kirby Smart has been Georgia’s football coach, this much has become clear: He will be bluntly honest when he analyzes his team. And that’s especially true when it comes to the secondary, where he used to play for the Bulldogs.
It happened last year, when Smart downplayed an experienced secondary that had finished first in the nation the year before he arrived. It happened again at Smart’s first preseason news conference, when he essentially said that having four starters back was overrated.
“We’ve got guys back, but how well do those guys play,” said Smart, Georgia’s starting safety in the late 1990s. “Do they play to the standard of what University of Georgia is? I don’t think so. I can’t sit here and say we play to the level of expectation that a secondary should play to.”
That was fairly unprompted, and also seemed a bit harsh, considering the unit did finish second in the SEC in pass defense last year. But it’s also defensible when you consider that Georgia was torched by the two best quarterbacks it faced last year – Ole Miss’ Chad Kelly and Tennessee’s Josh Dobbs – and that questions remain about this experienced Georgia secondary.
Is there a No. 1 cornerback? Is four-year starter Dominick Sanders a great safety or merely a good one who occasionally makes crucial mistakes? And will the team be able to replace Maurice Smith, who literally walked in two weeks into the preseason last year and started every game at nickelback?
A quick examination of each of those questions – last to first:
A NEW STARTER?
If the season began right now, junior J.R. Reed would start at safety, with Aaron Davis moving to nickelback. Some people might have expected freshman Deangelo Gibbs to earn the starting spot at nickelback, but it might end up being his cousin who takes the job.
Reed, a sophomore, sat out last season after transferring from Tulsa. Smart admits the coaches didn’t know much about him, other than what they learned by watching his tape and making some background calls. And of course it didn’t hurt that he was Gibbs’ cousin. But Reed is earning recognition in his own right.
“J.R. Reed is probably one of the guys I’ve talked about the least that’s probably the most interesting,” Smart said. “He’s very intelligent. He’s fast. He’s a good tackler. He’s been one of the surprises in an area where we need to be.”
It could still end up that Gibbs or sophomore Tyrique McGhee looks the best at nickelback, in which case Davis would slide back to safety. But for now, keep an eye on Reed, whose family tree also includes his uncle, former Tennessee and NFL safety Dale Carter. (There must be a lot of good defensive back talk at those family reunions.)
EXPERIENCED, BUT …
Sanders has started 37 games at Georgia — all but one since he got here — and could finish this year as the career leader in interceptions. The versatile Davis has 30 starts, almost evenly split between cornerback and safety. Parrish has 25 starts, and Baker started the final seven games last year.
That’s 99 combined starts coming back in Georgia’s secondary. Impressive. But meaningless?
“The point I keep harping on is, it doesn’t matter if you started 100 games. It matters how you played,” Smart said. “And how have we played in the secondary?”
Georgia was second in the SEC in passing yards allowed last year, but fifth in third-down defense, another metric that some coaches use.
“I’m not used to being fifth in the conference,” Smart said. “That’s not the standard at the University of Georgia. I don’t want to be there. I want to be first in the conference.”
THE SHUT-DOWN CORNER
This was a point David Pollack, the former Georgia great and current ESPN analyst, brought up recently: Does Georgia have someone who is a No. 1, lock-down cornerback, the type coaches know they can put on the other team’s best receiver? The same question was put to Smart.
“I don’t know that we’ve developed that – I’m very confident in Malkom Parrish and Deandre Baker, but when you say No. 1 lock-down, I don’t really know how you define that,” Smart said. “I don’t know if you’re saying first-round pick, is he going to stop everybody he plays against. I mean, our guys complete passes on them out there, and I don’t know if we have a first-round wide receiver. So I don’t know how to measure that, per se.
“I’m confident they know what to do, and they really compete hard. The freshmen are going to compete with the older guys. The older guys are doing a good job. But we still have room for improvement in the secondary.”
Georgia recruited a lot of bodies into this secondary, and some of them are very tall and fast bodies. Ameer Speed in particular stands out, literally, among the other cornerbacks. Gibbs has an impressive physique.
Speed and fellow freshman Eric Stokes are playing cornerback in camp. Latavious Brini, also recruited as a cornerback, is playing some at safety, along with Richard LeCounte. William Poole has been at cornerback and star. And Gibbs appears to be concentrating on the nickelback spot.
Those guys may very well be the future, especially once Sanders, Davis and Parrish are gone after the 2017 season. But for now the freshmen are learning Georgia’s defense and the speed of the game.
All under the watchful eye of a coach who is still looking for his secondary to be something more than just experienced.