- Mark Schlabach, ESPN Senior Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. – Two plays will be remembered from what was mostly a forgettable 8-5 season for Georgia in 2013.
In the final seconds of the Bulldogs’ 43-38 loss at Auburn, Georgia gave up a 73-yard touchdown on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds to play. Georgia defensive backs Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews converged on Nick Marshall’s Hail Mary pass and had a chance to knock it down, but Clemons inexplicably knocked the ball into the air. Auburn’s Ricardo Louis hauled in the tip with his left hand and ran into the end zone for one of the more memorable finishes in college football history.
Then, in Georgia’s 24-19 loss to Nebraska in the Taxslayer.com Gator Bowl, Georgia’s defense surrendered a 99-yard touchdown pass on third-and-14 late in the third quarter. It was the longest pass play in bowl history by any team.
As No. 12 Georgia prepares for Saturday’s opener against No. 16 Clemson at Sanford Stadium, all eyes are again focused on the Bulldogs’ much-maligned secondary. There’s a new man in charge of UGA’s defense and there are plenty of new faces. Harvey-Clemons and Matthews were dismissed from the team in the offseason and transferred to Louisville and Auburn, respectively.
For the second straight season, Georgia goes into its opener with an overhauled defense.
“The situations are very similar,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “Guys that don’t have a lot of experience are going to be playing. Some of them don’t have any experience, other than in practice. It’s very similar to a year ago.”
If nothing else, Richt hopes his defensive backs will at least be in the right position on the field. Last season, Georgia’s secondary never seemed to be on the same page, and miscommunication and busted assignments resulted in too many big passing plays. Georgia allowed 41 pass plays of 20 yards or longer last season, the most allowed by the Bulldogs in the past 10 seasons. Worse, Georgia surrendered 377 points last season, the most allowed by any defense in school history.
Maybe that’s why the Bulldogs didn’t seem to shed many tears when former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham left for a more lucrative contract at Louisville. Richt was able to hire former Florida State defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt to replace him. Pruitt helped the Seminoles win a BCS national championship last season, after serving as Alabama’s secondary coach from 2010-12.
“He’s a very demanding coach,” Richt said. “He’s definitely got a plan. I think he’s a very good teacher and communicator. He’s driven to have a great defense and over time he’ll do a phenomenal job.”
But will Georgia's defense be good enough in 2014?
The Bulldogs bring back a deep defensive line and stout group of linebackers, but their secondary very much remains a work in progress. Only senior cornerback Damian Swann has much experience. Pruitt hasn’t settled on a starting lineup for the rest of the secondary, although junior cornerback Devin Bowman, senior strong safety Corey Moore and redshirt freshman Aaron Davis were listed as starters on the depth chart the school released on Monday.
Bowman started one game in 2013 before spending the rest of the season in Grantham’s doghouse. Junior-college transfer Shattle Fenteng, freshman Malkom Parrish, junior Sheldon Dawson and converted receiver Rico Johnson also are in the mix at cornerback. Davis, a former walk-on, hasn’t played since suffering torn knee ligaments in high school in 2012.
Richt said Tuesday that he wouldn’t put too much stock into what the depth chart revealed.
“I don’t know what’s going to happen in Game 1,” Richt said. “There are a lot of moving parts and even the veterans are learning his system. There is a lot of youth on the back end, and nobody likes having youth on the back end.”
Swann said Georgia's defensive backs have worked hard to eliminate the gaffes that plagued them last season.
“That’s one of the things that Pruitt put in, that we’re going to have to communicate if we want to be good,” Swann said. “I think once everybody started learning the system, it wasn’t like we were learning one position. He was teaching it to everybody, where you could line up and play every spot. That’s the thing, knowing what we can do, knowing our assignments and playing fundamental football. That will get us where we need to be.”
2dSam Khan Jr.
3dSam Khan Jr.