Georgia defense tries to make up for losses

ATHENS, Ga. — Garrison Smith and Jordan Jenkins say that nobody is irreplaceable on Georgia’s defense.

Jenkins is confident the Bulldogs will overcome the loss of first-round draft picks like Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree and five other defenders who left for the NFL in April.

Their voids are being filled by less established players.

“That’s definitely going to be a lot of people’s reactions this year because they don’t even know what we’ve got under the bush,” Jenkins, a sophomore linebacker, said this week. “They just know the guys who played last year. We’ve got a lot of guys who are going to shock the world this year.”

Injuries, though, have affected three starters in the secondary, and even junior cornerback Damian Swann, the undisputed leader of the defensive backfield, has missed reps recently.

When they open the season Aug. 31 at No. 8 Clemson, the fifth-ranked Bulldogs also will be without starting strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, a sophomore whom coach Mark Richt suspended one game for violating unspecified team rules.

“As time goes on, players are just going to continue to get better and better, so sometimes it’s good to be thrown in the fire,” said Smith, a senior defensive end. “We’re going to be all right.”

Richt is hoping that Wednesday night’s practice at Sanford Stadium — Georgia’s third and final preseason scrimmage — will help the coaching staff choose starters at undetermined spots.

“There’s probably some starting positions on the line,” Richt said. “I know there are some guys who could possibly turn a coach’s head to say, ‘This kid is ready to play. Maybe we ought to get these guys some reps,’ and that can happen on special teams — we’re going live on our special teams — and it can happen on an offensive or defensive play.”

Those decisions might not come easily in the secondary, which needs to determine who will start at both safety positions and the other cornerback spot opposite Swann.

Injuries have the coaching staff looking at several options:

  • Freshman Tray Matthews appeared to win the free safety job after an impressive spring, but he’s missed most of summer camp with shoulder and hamstring injuries. Connor Norman, who has played in 28 games with two starts, is likely to take Matthews’ spot.
  • Corey Moore, projected to replace Harvey-Clemons against Clemson, has been out two weeks with a sprained knee, and junior college transfer Shaquille Fluker, another reserve strong safety, has a sprained back.
  • Swann was limited Tuesday with a hip flexor and strained groin. Sheldon Dawson, who figures to start at the other cornerback spot, has a knee injury.

These setbacks have thrust three freshmen — safety Quincy Mauger and cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaquille Wiggins — into roles with the first-team defense.

“Some guys might be ready by the time the game starts, but how many reps are they going to get between now and then to be as ready as they could have been if they had gotten all those reps,” Richt said. “So, it’s a problem, but it’s football. We all know that happens in football, and everybody’s got their problems, so we’ll be OK.”

Linebacker Leonard Floyd, cited by Richt this week as an impressive newcomer who worked his way into the first-team rotation this summer, is wearing a brace on his left hand and forearm.

The same goes for fellow linebacker James DeLoach, who added that he and Floyd are practicing with their hands so heavily taped that they can’t move their fingers.

“Sometimes it’s hard to make a certain play, but we just push through it,” DeLoach said. “We don’t use it as an excuse or anything like that.”

That’s a good thing because the Bulldog’s untested defense will certainly be tested by the explosive Tigers.