ATHENS, Ga. — Anyone who believed there was not much at stake in Georgia's final regular-season game against Houston had not been a part of the game-week preparations by the special teams.
Georgia was trying to hold onto its slim lead as the Southeastern Conference leader in punt coverage. For the second straight game, gunner Ryan Davis of Columbus led the way as that goal was accomplished.
"We were talking all week about how we were leading the conference in net punting and we wanted to finish on top,'' said assistant coach David Johnson, who coordinates the punt coverage team.
Davis set the tone for the unit. As the gunner — the coverage team's first defender down field who has to dodge lead blockers and try to make the hit — Davis drilled Houston's Gerard Daniels for no gain on the first punt of the game.
Similarly, one week earlier, Davis set the pace with a crunching hit on Georgia Tech's Kelly Rhino for no gain on the Yellow Jackets' first return of the game. Davis has taken he job of gunner previously shared by Jermaine Phillips and Tim Wansley this season. Earlier in the year, Davis' opportunities would come when Phillips or Wansley needed a breather because of their responsibilities as starting defensive backs.
"Now Ryan is the starter,'' Johnson said. "He has done a great job. He brought a lot of enthusiasm to it.''
Added running backs coach Tony Pierce, who works specifically with the gunners: "Ryan showed us something with that first hit of the Tech game. That set the tone for everybody in what we wanted to do in that game. He has been pretty consistent in that position.''
Davis, a junior from Carver High School, has waited patiently for such opportunities and feels that if he were given a similar chance at cornerback, he also would make an impact.
"If you can make the big play on special teams, it sets the tone for the game and opens eyes up,'' Davis said. "One punt coverage or kickoff coverage, you only have one or two opportunities in a game and you have to take advantage of that opportunity.''
Thanks to Jonathan Kilgo's strong leg and Davis' coverage, Georgia accomplished the goal of finishing first in the SEC in punting with a net average of 40.7 yards per punt.
Georgia also led the league in punt returns and finished second in kickoff returns.
Davis capped his big game against Houston by taking advantage of another opportunity. Davis recorded the first interception of his career, picking off the pass at the Georgia 17 with only 25 seconds left in the Bulldogs' 35-7 win.
"It took four years (including a redshirt season) to get that first one, but I finally got it,'' Davis said. "That left a good feeling. That was one of my goals from the beginning of the year. I took advantage of the opportunity, and that's all I can do.''
With Wansley, now out with a broken leg, completing his eligibility and no established starter at the other cornerback position, Davis will be part of an open competition for a starting job in spring practice.
Returning with Davis will be Decory Bryant and Bruce Thornton, who have shared one starting job this year, and backups Brandon Williams and Dantra Clements. Also, Kenny Bailey has moved from running back to cornerback in practice for next Friday's Music City Bowl against Boston College.
"Oh yeah, that's going to be wide open,'' said Coach Mark Richt this week. "There won't be many jobs (in the secondary) nailed down.''
Added Richt: "(Davis) is really practicing good. We're pleased with what he's doing. He has always been the guy who always works hard and is always conscientious. He is getting better and you can see it; he's doing better in man coverages.''
It would be a big surprise if Davis emerges from the spring and preseason practices with a starting job, but then it is a surprise to some that it was No. 33 making the big hits on punt coverage the last two games.
Just by taking a lead role on special teams, Davis already has surprised some skeptics who four years ago advised him to take a scholarship offer to a smaller school instead of walking on at Georgia.
Davis' father, Carver coach Wallace Davis, encouraged him to compete with the top athletes at a big school like Georgia.
"He always said if you can go big and make it, it will pave a long, long road for you,'' said Ryan Davis. "Georgia is one of the biggest schools.''
After two years, Davis was awarded a scholarship by former coach Jim Donnan.
"You look at so many walk-ons who never earn scholarships, so that was my No. 1 goal,'' Davis said.
Another goal is to earn more playing time on defense. Davis saw action on defense in 10 games this year, recording three tackles and breaking up a pass in addition to his interception — one of only five by Georgia cornerbacks this season, including two by Wansley, one by Williams and one by Bryant.
"There's going to be a competitive battle for the starting jobs,'' Davis said. "I can't tell you who's going to be No. 1 or No. 2."
"I'll just let nature take its course. Whether you're in for one or two plays or on special teams or starting at cornerback, you've got to find your role.''
NOTEBOOK: Richt said no starter or top backup would be academically ineligible for the bowl game. Richt indicated earlier in the week that if any player was in academic danger, it would be an injured player or another player who would not otherwise play in the game.
"There won't be any surprises at the bowl site ... (because) some guy who has been practicing for us all year is ineligible,'' Richt said Monday. ... Associate Athletics Director for Tickets Freddy Jones said Georgia has sold about 8,500 of 10,500 allotted to the school. More Georgia fans may have found tickets from other sources, including Alabama fans who thought the Crimson Tide was going to the Music City Bowl. Today is the last day tickets can be bought through Georgia, by calling (706) 542-1231. ... Several Georgia seniors have accepted invitations to all-star games. Verron Haynes, rated by NFL draft expert Mel Kiper as the No. 6 senior running back in the NFL draft, will play in the Feb. 2 Hula Bowl. Linebacker Will Witherspoon and center Curt McGill will play in the Jan. 12 East-West Shrine Game, and rover Jermaine Phillips will play in the Jan. 19 Senior Bowl in Mobile, Ala.
Charles Odum can be reached at CEOdum@aol.com.