Georgia defensive backs will compete for playing time

This is the fourth installment in a nine-part series that will preview Georgia’s spring football practice, which begins March 17. Today: Defensive backs | Yesterday: LinebackersTomorrow: Offensive line

DEFENSIVE BACKS
Who's gone: FS J.R. Reed
Who's back: S Richard LeCounte, S Divaad Wilson, S Lewis Cine, S Mark Webb, S Christopher Smith, S William Poole; CB Tyson Campbell, CB Tyrique Stevenson, CB Eric Stokes, CB Ameer Speed, CB D.J. Daniel, CB Latavious Brini
Who's new: S Major Burns, CB Jalen Kimber
Projected starters: LeCounte, Cine, Stokes, Campbell, Webb

ATHENS — Otis Reese was a heralded signee in Georgia's No. 1-ranked 2018 recruiting class. A consensus 4-star prospect who played linebacker more than defensive back at Lee County High, his blend of size and speed had him tabbed as the next great safety in a long line of standouts who have played for the Bulldogs.

Didn’t happen.

Reese started one game in two seasons at UGA and had a total of 16 tackles in 28 career games. He transferred to Ole Miss in January.

That doesn’t mean Reese wasn’t as good as advertised; it just means he couldn’t beat out the guys ahead of him, chiefly J.R. Reed and Richard LeCounte.

Such is the competition level in Georgia’s secondary these days. The Bulldogs have recruited defensive backs as well as they have any other position the past four season. As a result, they have elite players stacked like cordwood.

Keeping all those players productive and happy is the ultimate challenge for coach Kirby Smart and his defensive staff. But they seem to be doing a good job of it. Hence, the recent addition of four more elite DBs in the 2020 recruiting class. Two of them — 4-star corner Jalen Kimber and 4-star safety Major Burns — were able to join the team as early enrollees and will compete for playing time in spring practice. Kelee Ringo, the No. 1-rated cornerback recruit in the 247Sports Composite, and Daran Branch will enroll in June.

That means the competition for playing time in the secondary will be as intense as ever. But immediate playing time is not what Smart and the Bulldogs are selling to get talent to come their way.

“I don’t know how many of these guys look at that and acknowledge that,” Smart said of the depth chart. “I don’t know if that’s really important to them. It’s two-fold: Yeah, we played a lot of freshmen. Well, everybody in the country plays a lot of freshmen. … I don’t know if that has any bearing on it other than we will give good football players opportunities to play.”

Again, Georgia has a good blend of old and young in the defense's back third. The unquestioned leader will be safety LeCounte. The senior started every game the last two seasons alongside Reed and led the DBs in tackles (61) and interceptions (4) last year. He also had 76 yards in returns and was oh-so-close to taking a couple all the way back last season.

Credit: Hyosub Shin

Credit: Hyosub Shin

The biggest battle to be waged in spring will be the one to succeed Reed and play alongside LeCounte. That was surely a point of contention for Reese, who should have been poised to step into that role this season. Instead, he found himself behind freshman Lewis Cine in the rotation. Cine played in 13 games and finished with 14 tackles, two pass break-ups and an interception in the second game of his collegiate career.

“If you’re good enough, you’re old enough,” Smart explained. “… Lewis did some good things during the year. He really played well when he’s gotten the opportunity. He’s one of our faster players and that helps matchup-wise."

“Matchup-wise” is the way Georgia has played in the secondary under second-year coach Charlton Warren. The Bulldogs almost always play five defensive backs, and who occupies that role as the nickel back depends largely on the down-and-distance situation.

That duty generally was split up between junior Mark Webb and redshirt freshman Divaad Wilson. But Georgia played a host of other players in that spot, known as the “Star” in Smart’s defensive system. Sometimes it might be a cornerback such as Tyson Campbell or even an outside linebacker such as Walter Grant.

The Bulldogs appear set at corner with the return of junior Eric Stokes, D.J. Daniel and Campbell. Stokes has started 15 of his past 16 games at the field corner. Campbell, a former 5-star prospect, lost his starting job at the boundary to junior-college transfer Daniel last season, though both continued to log a lot of time at the position.

THE SERIES

Monday: Special teams
Tuesday: Defensive line
Wednesday: Linebackers
Today: Defensive backs
Friday: Offensive line
Saturday: Tight ends
Sunday: Quarterbacks
Monday: Wide receivers
Tuesday: Running backs