Little Big Men in the secondary

ATHENS - Auburn tried. The Tigers saw Georgia stacking the line of scrimmage to stop the running game and saw the Bulldogs' not-so-tall cornerbacks in single coverage against their 6-foot-something wide receivers, and they tried to go deep. At least three times last week, Auburn threw deep balls that could have changed the complexion of the game.

It's on a handful of plays like that on which a secondary's reputation turns. Each time against Auburn, the passes were batted away.

"Those (receivers) were big and physcial," Coach Mark Richt said. "Our guys aren't the biggest in the world, but they timed their jumps just right and broke up some big plays."

It was quiet a statement game for a battered group, but there will be no rest. Georgia's secondary faces another test Saturday when the No. 6 Bulldogs (8-2, 5-2 SEC) take on Kentucky (4-6, 1-5) Saturday at 12:30 p.m.

"I think the secondary has been outstanding, especially considering the hits we've had at that position," Richt said.

Georgia's defensive backs didn't make it to the season-opener before suffering their first setback as all-SEC pick Kentrell Curry was lost to a leg injury. The most heartbreaking loss came in October, when starting cornerback Decory Bryant suffered a possibly career-ending broken neck. Then, leading up to the Auburn game came the news that safety Sean Jones was out due to a shoulder injury.

The injuries have led the Bulldogs to turn to a variety of players, from converted linebacker Thomas Davis, who is having an All-SEC type season at safety; to cornerback Tim Jennings, who is listed generously at 5-foot-8; to safety Greg Blue, who emulated his hero Jack Tatum on Saturday by knocking out Auburn receiver Anthony Mix with a hit; to senior Kenny Bailey, who is the oldest player on the team at 25 and is only now getting significant playing time.

Davis moved to safety to take Curry's spot and leads the Bulldogs with 102 tackles, including seven for loss, and 4.5 sacks. Jennings moved into Bryant's role and had three pass deflections and eight tackles against Auburn.

Blue filled in for Jones against the Tigers and will start this week if Jones is unable to return. Blue lacks Jones' experience but is probably the biggest hitter on a team of big hitters. Bailey went from a seldom-used reserve to Georgia's nickel back.

"He's got to be a strong person to be here this long and not have more opportunities than he's had," Jennings said. "We learn a lot from Kenny."

Davis and Thornton are the only members of the secondary to start every game, and the leadership of Thornton, a senior, is one of the things that has held the group together, Richt said.

"Bruce is one of the best leaders we've got," Richt said. "He is a big-time encourager, and he'll say what he thinks."

Thornton said he's not surprised so many backups have stepped in capably.

"They were on the brink of being good and being starters," he said. "They're getting the opportunity to play now, and they're showing what they can do."

Secondary coach Willie Martinez is quick to point out that one standout game won't make the final drives of the Bulldogs' two losses, on which the secondary gave up big passing plays, go away, and it won't keep other teams from trying their luck.

"That's one of the things we said after the ballgame, offenses are going to do that," Martinez said. "You're going to have to defend it. I expect that to happen four or five times a game, and I expect them to produce."

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