Injuries make it difficult to evaluate Georgia defense

Wednesday is a huge day for the 45 defensive players on Georgia’s roster. The Bulldogs will conduct their final evaluation scrimmage of the preseason at Sanford Stadium. Afterward, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and his assistants will identify about half that number who they want to get ready to play against Clemson.

That has been a particularly trying endeavor during preseason camp because of injuries. Minor fractures, knee and ankle sprains and groin and hamstring pulls have besieged the defense, particularly a group of young players Georgia is counting on to play early.

“Obviously, we’re still in the evaluation phase because we’ve obviously had some guys tweaked and things like that and not be able to scrimmage in a competitive (situation),” said Grantham, who looks to replace seven starters off last season’s unit. “We have been pretty competitive in practice, but it’s still not like getting everybody off the field and having a scrimmage and making it as game-like as possible. So we’ll do that this week.”

Following are some areas the Bulldogs will focus on intently:

Secondary

Losing Josh Harvey-Clemons from the specially created “star” position was a blow to Georgia’s plans for Clemson. Meanwhile, injuries are impeding the progress of young players expected to step in as the Bulldogs rebuild the secondary.

Freshman Tray Matthews won the starting job at free safety in the spring, but has been held out of contact since the first week of camp because of a shoulder injury. A knee sprain has kept strong safety Corey Moore out for a week, and a groin injury has slowed highly touted freshman cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who was penciled in for playing time.

Junior cornerback Damian Swann likely will take over at the star position. Junior college transfer Shaquille Fluker has performed well in Moore’s stead, and freshman cornerback Brendan Langley has stood out. But everything could change in a week.

Secondary coach Scott Lakatos: “Injuries are part of the deal. People are going to get banged up a little. You just have to do the best you can with who you have and make sure you’re getting the work in. … So it hasn’t been a major issue.”

Inside linebacker

The Bulldogs are very young behind starting inside linebackers Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson. Freshman Reggie Carter has emerged as the likely “next guy in,” and fellow early enrollee Ryne Rankin (6-1, 222) has been solid, too. Freshman Johnny O’Neal (6-2, 225) joined the group this summer and will be depended on as well.

Linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti: “Reggie’s done a nice job for us. He knows everything, and he works his butt off in the weight room, on the field and in the classroom. I think he had like a 3.97 (GPA) his first semester. He got great grades, then he worked his butt off all summer, and he works his butt off in the meeting room. He works hard in every aspect of his life, and he’s put himself in position to be a contributor.”

Outside linebacker

Georgia had a strange run on fractured left hands at this position in the second week of camp. But sophomore James DeLoach (thumb) and freshmen Davin Bellamy (thumb) and Leonard Floyd (hand) returned to practice this week. Floyd made the biggest early impact among the freshman in camp.

Grantham: “Leonard has shown in practice to be an explosive guy, like we thought he’d be when we recruited him and brought him here. He’s an extremely hard worker. He picks up things pretty well. He has some length to him, and anytime you have length and burst and explosion that helps you as a player, particularly on defense. … We’ll just have to see how he plays in scrimmages when it’s game-like.”

Defensive line

What Georgia lacks in experience on the defensive front its makes up for in depth. New line coach Chris Wilson said he intends to play at least six or seven players — and preferably more — at the three primary positions. Senior Garrison Smith is a virtual lock to play one spot, but it won’t necessarily be the end position where he started 10 games the past two seasons. Wilson said he likes to move his guys to be “interchangeable.”

Wilson: “Football is about matchups these days. So all you’re trying to do is put the players in there who create the best matchup for Georgia. I just want my best guy against their worst guy and give him a chance to make a few plays. We try to focus on that more than this is the nose, this is the end.”

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