Can secondary overcome depth issue?

ATHENS, Ga. -- After last week's dismissal of freshmen Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders, the decision by Georgia's four junior defensive backs to return for their senior season looms larger.

With All-American Bacarri Rambo back alongside Shawn Williams, Branden Smith and Sanders Commings, the Bulldogs stand to have one of the nation's top secondaries in 2012. And they have their sights set on an even loftier designation than that.

"The whole defense, it's going to be one of our goals to finish as the No. 1 defense in the country this year," Williams said.

The Bulldogs finished fifth nationally in total defense in 2011, allowing 277.2 yards per game, but fourth in the SEC behind BCS champion Alabama (183.6), LSU (261.5) and South Carolina (267.7).

Entering their third season executing defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, the Bulldogs hope to take another step toward competing with the likes of Alabama and LSU.

"We came up short last year, but we saw what we could do and that we could build an overall great team with the players that we have. We've got to work just that much harder," Williams said. "Alabama, with them winning, we know we can match up with them at any position -- offense, defense, receiver, quarterback, everything."

With steady veterans like Williams and Rambo -- who led the SEC with eight interceptions last year -- at the safety spots, and Commings and Smith at cornerback, the Bulldogs' secondary appears to be one of the most dependable groups of starters on Georgia's 2012 roster.

The greater question concerns the secondary's depth and who will fill the veterans' spots in the defensive backfield in 2013 and beyond.

Before being dismissed last week for breaking team rules, Marshall and Sanders both played as true freshmen. Marshall appeared in 13 games and recorded five tackles, while Sanders played in the first three games before suffering a season-ending shoulder injury.

During the season, sophomore Jordan Love transferred to Towson. Also, Commings' status is unresolved since his arrest following a domestic dispute last month.

"Right now that situation is ongoing and we expect it to be resolved as soon as everything is done, so we'll just kind of move forward on that," Grantham said last week.

Add those issues to the loss of senior cornerback Brandon Boykin, who won the Paul Hornung Award as the nation's most versatile player in his final college season, and the Bulldogs face reasonable depth questions entering spring practice.

No safety at safety

Grantham expressed the need to identify the team's nickelback, but he has options in cornerbacks Damian Swann, Devin Bowman and incoming freshman Sheldon Dawson, whose explosiveness compares to that of Boykin, Grantham said.

Depth at safety could be more of an issue, with rising sophomores Corey Moore and Quintavius Harrow and sophomore Marc Deas being the only other scholarship players at the position.

Williams said to keep an eye on Moore in particular, as he was in line to succeed Rambo, had Rambo taken an early leap to the NFL.

"I know Corey was anxious, but already getting in the playbook because he felt like Bacarri was leaving," Williams said. "I feel like now that Bacarri came back, that might make him not want to work as hard. I'm going to tell him that he still needs to work hard, because if either one of us goes down, he's the next guy in. There can't be no fall-off, and he can't be the guy that, if he comes in, that they pick on."

Williams led Georgia with 72 tackles last season, and Rambo tied for fourth with 55 stops along with his SEC-best interception total. The two have set a high standard for any backup who relieves them.

That production made them probable NFL picks, should they have decided to leave school a year early. In fact, all four starting defensive backs likely would have been selected, according to the feedback they received from the NFL's draft advisory board.

Yet all four of them returned, hoping to improve their draft stock and lead Georgia to a spot in the BCS championship game in Miami.

"God put it on my heart that I need to stay my senior year so I can get better and improve at the small things that I need to and just be a complete safety," Rambo said. "I'm going to do my best this offseason to try to get better, work hard, be a leader and hopefully help my team get to Miami next year."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.