Four times during a one-minute comment on the secondary Smart said “a ways to go” or some derivative thereof. And that makes sense. With the departures of cornerbacks Tyson Campbell (NFL), Eric Stokes (NFL) and DJ Daniel (NFL) and nickelbacks Tyrique Stevenson (transfer to Miami) and Mark Webb (NFL) Georgia’s secondary was left was a significant gap in terms experience. Those guys played in an average 32.6 games in their careers, with a high of 49 by the senior Webb.
Contrast to the most experienced players competing for the Bulldogs this spring and that number drops to 24 games, led by safeties Lewis Cine (24) and Christopher Smith (29). And while those two have a season of defensive starts under their belts, the majority of game-day work logged by nickel Latavious Brini (17) and cornerback Ameer Speed (26) has been on special teams.
“We know we can get where we’ve got to go because we’re always working hard toward our goals,” said Smith, who succeeded Richard LeCounte as a starting safety after LeCounte’s injury midway through last season. “You know, those guys at corner, they’re no slouches. They’re going to work hard and play hard like everybody else. The whole unit is working to get better and we’re going to be sound across the board by the time that first game comes.”
That first game is expected to be a Top 10 matchup between the Bulldogs and Clemson in Charlotte on Sept. 4.
Smith will remedy the situation considerably when he finally arrives. Playing for Georgia’s first-year defensive backfield coach Jahmile Addae at West Virginia the last two seasons, Smith was a two-year starter and third-team All-American as a “spear.” That’s a position similar to Georgia’s “star,” or nickelback, but the players who play it there train with the cornerbacks. Smith logged 69 tackles, 4 interceptions and 9 pass break-ups with the Mountaineers.
Smart was asked about Smith’s addition on Saturday.
“I’m not even sure if I’m allowed to comment or not,” he said. “I think I may be able to, but I’m not sure about the rule so I’ll just use that as my reason for not answering.”
Brini, who started the Chick-fil-A Peach Bowl, is the heir apparent at star for the Bulldogs. Christopher Smith said he expects the Bulldogs all to be welcoming of their room’s new addition.
“It’s fully accepted by me,” the rising senior said. “I welcome anything that can help our team. He’s an All-American and things like that, you know. Competition is good for our room. It’s going to force us all to play better, including him. Competitiveness is the name of the game.”
The players competing for reps at corner all arrived with a lot of stars next to their names, including 5-star Kelee Ringo and 4-star Jalen Kimber. As fate would have it, circumstances allowed them both to redshirt last year, along with fellow freshman Daran Branch. Meanwhile, Georgia added four more star-studded DB signees this year, including Newton County’s Nyland Green, who received some 5-star mention.
But including converted running back Lovasea Carroll, at least six players who will take the field at corner on Saturday have never taken one snap in college. Regardless of talent level, being able to thrive in Smart’s notoriously complicated defensive backfield as a freshman is a rarity. Add some new and old injury factors and, hence, Smart’s ways-to-go references.
“We’ve got to figure out who (will play),” Smart said. “We’ve got guys in that position who are dinged up who haven’t been able to practice. We’re already thin and we’re already young and, when you miss practice time, that’s hard. We’re trying to grow those guys up. We’re in constant search for our best lineup.
“I will say this: Every one of them wants to get better and every one of them is trying to get better.”
That’s a start.