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Pre-spring analysis: Bulldogs have safety in numbers

Georgia safety Dominick Sanders came away with the ball in his hands six times last season, returning them for a total of 205 yards. He's back to patrol the secondary for the Bulldogs in 2016.

ATHENS — We continue this morning with our series breaking down Georgia’s football team position-by-position between now and the beginning of spring practice in mid-March. Today we’ll discuss safeties.

Seth Emerson got us started on Monday with cornerbacks.

Safety is an interesting position. In college and pro ball, you could say it’s the most important defensive position on the field since it represents the last line of defense. Because of the balance and spread-out nature of modern offenses, safeties are heavily charged both with pass and run support. So you better be good at this position.

And Georgia is.

Generally, there are two types of safeties, a strong safety and a free safety. The Bulldogs kind of moved away from those distinctions under previous defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who refused to label one or the other.  And it’s extremely confusing in Georgia’s media guide to determine who was doing what. In some places Dominick Sanders is listed as a strong safety, in others as a free safety and sometimes just “safety.” Same thing with Quincy Mauger. Then, on game-day depth charts, they were listed as “RS” and “LS,” respectively, for “right safety” and “left safety.”

Generally, a strong safety plays on the strong-side of the defense, where the tight end lines up or there are more players on the offensive line of scrimmage. And the free safety is just that, free. Depending on the coverage, he has a little more freedom to roam the field and follow the ball.

In that respect, it was fairly evident from alignment, video review and productivity that Sanders usually filled the free-safety role. The good news is Sanders and Mauger were good enough that Pruitt considered them interchangeable. And they’re both back.

The difficulty in analyzing Georgia’s secondary for 2016 is it will be under new leadership. Mel Tucker is the new defensive coordinator and will also coach the DBs. He will obviously receive a great deal of input from head coach Kirby Smart, who was defensive coordinator at Alabama, used to coach secondary and played safety himself at Georgia. So there will be a fresh look. But, like Pruitt, the Bulldogs are expected to mix-and-match as needed against opponents.

Now on to the breakdown:

FREE SAFETY

  • Returning starter: Dominick Sanders, Jr.
  • Others returning: Quincy Mauger, Sr.; Jarvis Wilson, So.; Aaron Davis, Jr.; Reggie Wilkerson, Jr.; Shattle Fenteng, Sr.; Rico McGraw, So.; Rashad Roundtree, So.; Kirby Choates, So.; Jonah Guinn, Sr.
  • Early enrollees: Chad Clay, Fr.
  • On the way: Mecole Hardman, Fr.; Tyrique McGhee, Fr.
  • Analysis: Again, there is just simply no way to know how Tucker is going to analyze and redistribute Georgia’s talent, if at all. But the reality is, this is Sanders’ position as long as he’s upright and able to fill it. The key for the Bulldogs is in developing some depth for now and especially for the future. Heading into spring, rising sophomore Jarvis Wilson is listed as the primary backup and he played 11 games serving in that role last season. Georgia also anxiously awaits the development of Rashad Roundtree, a highly-touted prospect out of Evans who played in 12 games last year but almost exclusively on special teams. The Bulldogs were hurt here by the departure of Johnathan Abram, who left the program due to “family issues” before the bowl game. Before that, he played in 10 games — starting four — and finished with 25 tackles as a true freshman. So he would’ve helped.
  • Bottom line: Outside of an occasional breather or the unfortunate instance of injury, Sanders is going to be on the field at this position or another in the secondary for every meaningful snap the Bulldogs play on defense. In fact, Pruitt played him all over the place, including “star” and corner, depending on what the situation called for. He is simply Georgia’s best defensive back and has a penchant for finding the ball and making plays. Sanders had a team-best six interceptions last season (nine for his career) and returned them for a total of 205 yards. He’s the Bulldogs’ best “ball hawk” since Bacarri Rambo and will be in position to be mentioned alongside the program’s greatest of all time before it’s over. The Dogs are in good shape here.

STRONG SAFETY

  • Returning starter: Quincy Mauger, Sr.
  • Others returning: Dominick Sanders, Jr.; Jarvis Wilson, So.; Aaron Davis, Jr.; Reggie Wilkerson, Jr.; Shattle Fenteng, Sr.; Rico McGraw, So.; Rashad Roundtree, So.; Kirby Choates, So.; Jonah Guinn, Sr.
  • Early enrollees: Chad Clay, Fr.
  • On the way: Mecole Hardman, Fr.; Tyrique McGhee, Fr.
  • Analysis: Once again this position should be in the capable of hands of the supremely experienced Mauger. The 6-foot, 200-pound rising senior has participated in every game Georgia has played since he showed up as a freshman. That tenure includes 25 starts, including every game last season except one in which the Bulldogs came out in specialized personnel against Missouri. Ideally, UGA would like to have a bigger, more physical presence at the position, once manned by the likes of Josh Harvey-Clemons and Shawn Williams. But to date nobody has been able to overtake the heady Mauger, who overcomes any physical limitations with his ability to anticipate and react. He had 58 tackles last season, tops among DBs. But Tucker and Smart vow to play the best players they have and are not married to dedicated positions. Any one of 15 scholarship defensive backs could end up here, including the cornerback Davis, who can also play safety.
  • Bottom line: Mauger probably doesn’t get the respect he deserves as a defensive back. It’s hard to remember that he was considered the lesser athlete when the Bulldogs recruited him and 4-star prospect Brendan Langley out of Marietta’s Kell High. Langley left UGA after the 2014 season and is now at Lamar University, an FCS program in Texas. Meanwhile, the 3-star-rated Mauger has played in 39 games and is poised to have played in every game in his college career. To date he has netted 166 tackles, five interceptions and 10 pass break-ups and he is a locker room leader. No matter how it shakes out, expect Mauger to play a lot. But spring should bring some spirited competition

Next: Outside linebackers

PRE-SPRING ANALYSES

Part I: Georgia has cornerbacks covered

NextUGA lands a must-get commitment for this year’s signing class
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