ATHENS – Georgia’s secondary has been a bit of a statistical quandary the past couple of years. The stats are very good: first in the nation in pass defense in 2015, eighth last season. But there have been times of leakiness, including at a very crucial time. Doubtless, you know of what we allude.
It’s now a time of transition. Three players who have been the core of this secondary the last three seasons – Dominick Sanders, Aaron Davis and Malkom Parrish – are out of eligibility and have moved on. Sanders left the program tied for the most interceptions in school history, Davis started 45 games at almost every position in the secondary, and Parrish started 31 games in his career.
That doesn’t mean all the experience is out the door. In fact, one could argue that the two best defensive backs are back: cornerback Deandre Baker, who looked hard at the NFL draft before returning, and safety J.R. Reed, who was a revelation after earning a starting job in 2017.
That’s a good nucleus. But who will join them?
We may know more within a week. Tyson Campbell, a 5-star cornerback from the Fort Lauderdale, Fla., area, will be in the mix to start if he signs with Georgia.
A couple of other prospects signed, and one is already on campus. And there are others who signed last year, biding their time as freshmen. So there are options, but how it shakes out will be one of the big questions for 2018.
As we transition into Georgia’s offseason, we take a look at the changes at each position group and the incoming players, and analyze how it could play out in 2018. This edition we look at the entire secondary. (Think we would trot out the cornerbacks and safeties separately just to make you click twice? Well, we’re feeling generous today.)
Top returners: Deandre Baker, Sr.
Newcomers: Divaad Wilson, Fr.; Chris Smith, Fr.; Nadab Joseph, Fr.
Other contenders: Deangelo Gibbs, Soph.*, Ameer Speed, Soph.; Mark Webb, Soph.; Eric Stokes, R-Fr.
Analysis: Deandre Baker’s return is huge for Georgia’s defense. This is a player who didn’t have a touchdown thrown to a man he was guarding all season, and when the ball came his way in general, good things tended to happen for Georgia. He will have a chance to play himself into All-SEC consideration, and perhaps more. The question entering 2017 was whether Georgia had a lock-down cornerback. Baker answered the question.
One guarantee: Baker will start, barring injury or anything unforeseen.
Key loss: Malkom Parrish (eligibility)
Top returners: Tyrique McGhee, Jr.
Newcomers: Wilson, Smith, Joseph
Other contenders: Gibbs, Speed, Webb, Stokes
Analysis: Tyrique McGhee has experience, having started a couple of games in 2017, and being in the two-deep each of his two seasons on campus. He’s going to enter the spring as a slight favorite to start at either cornerback or nickel back, but plenty of competition awaits. Wilson has enrolled early. Webb really turned heads last season in practice after switching from receiver. Speed offers good size and played in 11 games. Smith and Joseph will get a look when they arrive this summer. And so of course will Campbell if he signs with Georgia. There will be no shortage of contenders. Whether Gibbs is part of the equation remains to be seen.
One guarantee: Maybe not a guarantee, but it’s hard to see the same person starting every game at the “other” cornerback spot the entire season. It’s more likely a few guys get a shot before it settles on one person.
Nickel back (Star)
Key loss: Aaron Davis (eligibility)
Top returners: McGhee, Jarvis Wilson, Sr.
Newcomers: Wilson, Smith, Joseph.
Other contenders: Gibbs*, Speed, Webb.
Analysis: Aaron Davis has played all over the secondary in his career and finished as the star when Georgia was in the nickel, which was most of the time down the stretch. McGhee and Wilson both got looks here in practice, and J.R. Reed played the star some early in the season before settling in at safety. So there are any number of ways this gets handled, including the chance that Reed ends up in the Davis role – starting at one spot in the base defense, flexing to star in the nickel. Or they could use it as the third cornerback spot, going with whomever doesn’t win the spot vacated by Parrish.
One guarantee: Gibbs would very much be in the mix here or for the second cornerback spot if he were enrolled in classes and on the team. We’ll see how that plays out.
Key loss: Dominick Sanders (eligibility)
Top returners: Richard LeCounte, Soph.; Jarvis Wilson, Sr.
Newcomers: None, unless Joseph moves to safety.
Other contenders: William Poole, R-Fr.; Latavious Brini, R-Fr.; Tray Bishop, R-Fr.
Analysis: Sanders didn’t end his career the way he wanted, but he started 53 games and leaves a void. LeCounte will be a good bet to fill it. He started one game and saw some snaps in non-garbage time. Wilson has been around for three years, pushing for playing time but never quite cracking through. He has one more year to get there. Poole, Brini and Bishop also could contend for the two-deep.
One guarantee: LeCounte is the favorite and should get the job if he stays healthy and continues on the trajectory he began as a freshman.
Top returner: J.R. Reed, Jr.
Other contenders: LeCounte, Wilson, Poole, Brini, Bishop.
Analysis: Reed brings experience, a nose for the ball and physical play back to the secondary. He should take on a big leadership role with the 2018 Georgia defense. If you penciled in Reed and LeCounte as the favorites at safety you’d probably be safe. The question is who could push for time, and that seems wide open between Wilson and the redshirt freshmen.
One guarantee: Reed could be moved around, depending on how younger players look in practice. He could move to a more free safety role, go down to nickelback, or just stay at strong. But either way he’ll be out there.
Next: Special teams.