ATHENS — The guy who led the team in sacks (Jarvis Jones) is gone.
The guy who led the team in tackles (Alec Ogletree) is gone.
The guy who pretty much threw his teammates under the bus, which might have been regrettable had it not actually turned around Georgia’s season on defense (Early County native Shawn Williams), is gone.
It’s like somebody stood in Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall and yelled, “Fire!” Or maybe, “Paycheck!”
Georgia opens the season Saturday night at Clemson. The Bulldogs are expected to be really good on offense but are really green on defense. The offense will be fine. Aaron Murray was named the SEC’s preseason First-Team quarterback — ahead of Johnny Manziel, who won the Heisman Trophy last season — and he has been blessed with two great running backs and a strong offensive line.
But the defense returns only two full-time starters from a year ago. Ten of the 22 players on the two-deep depth chart have never played a down of FBS football. Eight of the 22 are freshmen.
This can work for a team if the first game comes against Buffalo, Louisiana-Lafayette or any nonconference opponent willing to subject itself to dismemberment in exchange for $850,000. But Clemson has one of the nation’s better offenses and plays in one of the nation’s louder stadiums.
Linebacker Amarlo Herrera knows what some are thinking: “How are we going to act? How are we going to react and play? How’s it going to feel out there for the people who’ve never played in a college football game before?”
Richt has no idea, and he coaches this team. Understand, this isn’t a new situation for him or any college coach. Rosters churn annually. It’s just not favorable when so many players on one side of the ball leave at once. Georgia had eight players drafted into the NFL last season, and seven play defense.
There’s also the staple drug violation. It’s written somewhere that Georgia can’t begin a season without at least one player suspended for marijuana. The offending toker this year is strong safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, who would have played a major role against Clemson.
Four other potential regulars are out with injuries, all defensive backs: Devin Bowman, Corey Moore, Reggie Wilkerson and Paris Bostick. If you’re Clemson wide receiver Sammy Watkins, you’re kind of excited.
Starting at strong safety is Connor Norman. He’s a senior. He’s a walk-on. He mostly has played special teams. He’s generously listed at 5-10, 201. I’m assuming somebody was looking through a magnifying glass.
Nothing against Norman. He seems like a nice kid. He just doesn’t look like a starting safety in the SEC. In fact, when asked Tuesday if he ever has been recognized on campus as a football player, he said, “No. That’s never happened.”
Norman had been taking turns with the first unit in practice, but said he didn’t know he was elevated to No. 1 on the depth chart “until my brother texted me (Monday). That was a shock to me, too.”
Coach Mark Richt was asked the obvious question: Are you concerned?
“I’m probably more curious than concerned,” he said. “It’s just going to be interesting how quickly these guys can get their feet under them and start playing with some confidence. I’m not saying they won’t start out that way. But young people tend to be more apt to react to what happens early in the game. When things go great they start feeling great. When they don’t go well, they start feeling bad. That’s one of the biggest things they have to understand: No matter what happens you’ve got to play the next down.”
Richt believes the Bulldogs can get survive their issues in the secondary if they can get a decent pass rush on quarterback Tajh Boyd. But Boyd is a mobile quarterback with a strong arm, and the Dogs have lost several players from their defensive front — Jones, Ogletree, John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers, Abry Jones, Cornelius Washington.
Richt again: “I don’t know how our front seven is going to play.”
Defensive end Garrison Smith is one of two full-time starters returning from last season’s defense. He looked around at all of the new faces at the team’s first practice this summer and, recalled, “It felt kind of weird, not having a big 500-pounder like John Jenkins, a big eight-footer like Kwame. But that’s just part of the game. New stars are made every year.”
That’s true. But how this defense evolves in November and December may be more comforting than Game 1. When asked what he expected against Clemson, Smith said, “We’re all wondering. The coaches and everybody. The whole world.”