ATHENS, Ga. -- The message Georgia's coaching staff is sending to its secondary this spring seems to be fairly clear: Make productive use of these 15 practices now, because the competition will only get tougher in the preseason.
"Right now at the secondary positions, it's real critical that you really can't go out in the spring and take a day off," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "Every day we're going to be competing. Every day we're working to get better because we need to find out exactly what these young men can do because we have some guys that are going to be coming in. We've got to filter all these guys in and get going pretty quickly once August gets started."
The Bulldogs have only one known commodity in the secondary: cornerback Damian Swann, who started all 14 games and led the team with four interceptions last season. Otherwise, after losing veteran cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith and longtime starting safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams, the Bulldogs have to establish a pecking order among a host of unproven players.
At cornerback, early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson and rising sophomores Sheldon Dawson and Devin Bowman have an opportunity to claim playing time before signees Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley arrive this summer. Likewise, returning safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons, Corey Moore and Connor Norman are competing with newcomers Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger before three more signees -- Paris Bostick and junior college transfers Shaq Fluker and Kennar Johnson -- join the roster in a couple of months.
And the coaches aren't wasting any time getting the newcomers onto the field for valuable practice repetitions.
"A lot of times you'll have a true freshman that might have the same mental capacity as [Matthews and Mauger], but they just might not get a lot of reps," Richt said. "Well, right now they're getting a bunch of reps and that's good. And when I say reps, I'm talking about in 11-on-11, I'm talking about in pass skeleton, I'm talking about team run stuff. They're right in the heart of what we're doing.
"You might get a rep in a run drill or in some other fundamental drills, but when you get a repetition in the 11-on-11 part of practice and you get a lot of them, you can't help but get better faster and understand what you're doing faster."
How the freshmen and other competitors for playing time fare in those drills will impact how Georgia's coaches move forward with their plans for preseason practice. They want to see the athletic, 6-foot-5 Harvey-Clemons prove he can hold down the strong safety spot, and for someone -- Dawson might be the front-runner -- to claim the starting cornerback position opposite Swann.
But Swann is the only Bulldogs defensive back who can feel secure in his spot on the defense, which is why this spring is so important for the position groups.
"For all those guys, the next 15 days of practice to me is real critical, because we need to find out exactly what they know, what they can do, how they can help us and then where we need to fit the guys that are coming in," Grantham said.
Let's take a quick look at each of the leading contenders in the secondary:
Devin Bowman: He started the opener against Buffalo last season and contributed mostly as a reserve and on special teams after Commings returned from a two-game suspension to start the season. Bowman surrendered a couple of big plays in pass coverage, so he must prove he can perform consistently if the coaches put him on the field.
Sheldon Dawson: Recruiting experts' opinions varied widely on Dawson coming out of high school, although two services ranked the Memphis native as the top prospect in Tennessee in 2012. Georgia's coaches are high on his potential, but he is largely unproven, having contributed almost exclusively on special teams a year ago.
Damian Swann: He entered the starting lineup last season and became one of the top playmakers in the Bulldogs' secondary. The low point was when he allowed Alabama's Amari Cooper to get behind him for the game-winning touchdown in the SEC championship game. Otherwise, Swann played mostly solid coverage and helped generate a number of big turnovers.
Reggie Wilkerson: The wiry freshman (UGA lists him at 5-foot-11, 162 pounds) has already made a few good plays in passing drills this spring, but he's obviously a work in progress. The good thing for Wilkerson is that he reported to campus in January ahead of Wiggins -- Georgia's highest-rated signee according to ESPN's rankings -- and Langley.
Josh Harvey-Clemons: Perhaps no player will be watched more closely this spring than Harvey-Clemons, who will apparently play strong safety, nickelback and occasionally outside linebacker in certain packages. He was ESPN's top-rated outside linebacker prospect in 2012 and brings an impactful skill set to the table, but he has to prove he can handle the coverage aspects of the job.
Tray Matthews: Clearly Georgia coaches want Matthews to make the two-deep at minimum -- and win a starting job if possible. He was their highest-rated safety signee and possesses both impressive ball skills and the knack to deliver a powerful hit. A strong spring will give him a leg up on taking over Rambo's role at free safety.
Quincy Mauger: It remains to be seen where Mauger will fit in on the safety depth chart. He was not a terribly sought-after recruit, but he possesses the smarts and work ethic to make a name for himself as a freshman either on scrimmage downs or on special teams. With Fluker, Johnson and Bostick arriving this summer, now is an important time for Mauger to find his niche.
Corey Moore: The rising junior has earned a reputation as a big hitter in practice, but hasn't shown much in games. He has appeared in 26 games thus far and actually started once on offense to deliver a crackback block. But he totaled just 15 tackles and one tackle for a loss thus far. If Moore doesn't seize a bigger role this season, it's reasonable to wonder whether he ever will at UGA.
Connor Norman: He made one of Georgia's biggest plays of last season when he recovered a late-game onside kick against Kentucky. The cerebral former walk-on is a good teacher and leader in a youthful group, but he does not possess the same physical tools. His smarts got him a couple of starts last season, however, and might keep him in the mix this fall.