By William Qualkinbush.
By William Qualkinbush
Georgia put up excellent numbers against the pass last season, finishing second in the SEC and eighth in the country in yardage allowed through the air (175.6 yards per game). A closer look at the numbers, however, shows a hole in the statistics.
Georgia’s defense gave up a low amount of yardage overall, but it gave up 7.0 yards per attempt, an average number nationally. In addition, opponents threw fewer times against Georgia than any other team in the country except Army, Florida Atlantic, and Illinois—a mere 25.1 attempts per game.
This could mean one of two things: Either the DBs for Georgia are extremely good, or the run defense is porous and opposing offensive coordinators are calling plays that are more likely to net yardage. A little of both appears to be true, and we’ll delve more into rushing stats when we look at the linebackers and defensive linemen.
The point is that Georgia’s statistical dominance against opposing passing games last season is partially a product of a low number of opportunities. It was also a product of experience, as four of the unit’s top five tacklers last season were seniors.
The top returner, Damien Swann, was superb, totaling 53 tackles, four interceptions, two sacks, and five pass deflections.
Otherwise, the Bulldogs will rely on new faces to fill gaps. The majority of the snaps will go to players who played sparingly, not at all, or in high school last season. Guys like Sheldon Dawson, Corey Moore, Connor Norman, and Devin Bowman will team with highly anticipated newcomers like safety Tray Matthews in the defensive backfield.
Perhaps the most important development for the Bulldogs may occur off the field. Josh Harvey-Clemons, a former blue-chip recruit slotted at the STAR position for Todd Grantham, is suspended for the Clemson game, so how Mark Richt’s staff plugs this hole could be a determining factor in the game.
Clemson had all kinds of issues in the secondary last season. Things were so bleak, former position coach Charlie Harbison’s exit for Auburn was received better than many around the country might have imagined. There is some excitement surrounding new secondary coach Mike Reed, but in Game 1, there probably should be a cap on expectations.
The Tigers were 73rd in the country against the pass last season, as teams exploited confusion and a lack of depth trying to keep pace with Chad Morris’ offense. There may actually be more question marks within the unit this season after graduation took both starters at the safety positions last year.
The only thing certain about the Clemson defensive backfield is that Travis Blanks will get the vast majority of the snaps at one safety spot. Used as a nickel back for much of last year, the sophomore appears ready to lead this season after a 2012 campaign in which he amassed 49 tackles and seven passes defended.
Other than Blanks, it simply is not known who will man the other three positions for the Tigers. Returners Bashaud Breeland, Garry Peters, and Darius Robinson all have a shot to start at cornerback, but none showed a ton of consistency last season. Junior Robert Smith seems to have solidified the other starting spot at safety.
The most revealing number with regards to the Clemson DBs may be eight, the number of signees Dabo Swinney signed in the 2013 class that are expected to play cornerback or safety. Freshman Jadar Johnson showed ability in the spring, but rest assured all of the new faces will get ample opportunities to win playing time against the Bulldogs, including incoming freshman Mackensie Alexander.
The Bottom Line: Simply put, this is a no-brainer. Even given the suspension of Harvey-Clemons and major personnel losses to the NFL, Georgia still has more answers in the secondary than Clemson does. Considering how much both teams are expected to air the football out, question marks should be exploited on both sides.