Bulldogs look to Swann in secondary

Georgia cornerback Damian Swann (5) chases Georgia Tech’s Robert Godhigh (25) in a game earlier this year. Swann is the only veteran in the defensive secondary. (Reuters)

Georgia cornerback Damian Swann (5) chases Georgia Tech’s Robert Godhigh (25) in a game earlier this year. Swann is the only veteran in the defensive secondary. (Reuters)

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Damian Swann looks nothing like the fresh-faced freshman who arrived at Georgia three years ago. To start with, there’s hardly any face to see anymore. It has been replaced with a thick, dark beard that would have made Marvin Gaye proud. Considering his wealth of experience with the Bulldogs, the only thing missing is some distinguished gray.

Swann turned 21 on Dec. 4 and is only a junior in eligibility. But he has encountered enough good and bad during his tenure in Georgia’s secondary to qualify for medicare.

And it’s been a little more bad than good this year. A two-year starter at cornerback, Swann was the only veteran in a secondary full of rookies. And opponents took full advantage. The Bulldogs’ pass defense ranked among the worst in the SEC. They allowed 232.8 yards per game. Only three conference teams gave up more.

But Swann doesn’t look at the season as a failure. As Georgia prepares for its final game of 2013 — on Wednesday versus Nebraska in the Gator Bowl — he views it more as a rite of passage.

“I took it as a learning experience,” Swann said. “It was a quick transition for me, being a younger guy last year playing with all those older guys that ended up in the NFL to being the veteran guy. But I think it was a good experience for me, and it’s going to carry over to next year.”

Swann spent last season with the Bulldogs as a sort of little brother to his backfield mates. He started every game as a sophomore surrounded by four seniors: safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams and corners Sanders Commings and Branden Smith. And he shined.

In fact, it was against Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl last season that Swann engendered such optimism for this one. He had two picks along with six tackles in the 45-31 victory.

But this season Swann found himself in an inverse situation. Of the players who got starts around him — Sheldon Dawson, Josh Harvey-Clemons, Brendan Langley, Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger and Shaq Wiggins — all were first-year starters at their respective positions.

At the same time, Swann was asked to move from covering the slot to an outside corner position. There he has been asked to handle the opposition’s best wideout, and it hasn’t always gone particularly well.

Swann was burned more than once, particularly in the first half of the season. Somewhat of a spokesman for the defense since spring practice, he eventually started to decline interviews.

“It was nothing against you guys,” Swann said in November. “It’s just that I haven’t been playing the way I was expecting to play, so there was really nothing for me to talk about.”

It would have been easy to keep Swann at the “star” position and ask him to pick up where he left off. But that’s not what defensive coordinator Todd Grantham did.

“You put players in position to get the best combination of players on the field,” Grantham said. “He led our team in interceptions a year ago and played really well in the slot — and he’ll continue to play in there some. But he’s playing more outside this year relative to the players we had. And I think he can play outside. It’s just a matter of him continuing to work and develop. We’re counting on him.”

Swann understands that.

“At the end of the day I’m playing for Georgia,” Swann said. “I’m not playing where I’m most comfortable playing; I’m playing where Georgia needs me. That’s the way I look at it. So when it comes down to position, that will never be my decision. It always comes down to what the coaches want.”

Such an attitude has bought Swann considerable clout in the locker room and with his coaches. You’ll hear no complaints from them about anything they’re getting out of the 5-foot-11, 178-pound athlete.

“He didn’t play as well as he hoped he would,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I think that he’s very hungry to finish strong and get ready for a great senior year. We’re going to need him to play his best; we’re going to need him to prepare his best; we’re going to need his leadership if we’re going to get where we want to go.

“I think he and Corey Moore are the obvious choices for the leadership of the back end of the defense, and I think they’re already kind of gearing up for that. So we expect a lot out of Damian.”