ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia's season-opening games against Arkansas State (twice), Kent State, Utah State and Georgia Southern the last five years did little to really prepare the Bulldogs for their next games against South Carolina. Georgia coaches could feel good about winning those openers by an average margin of 41-8, but those kind of games are not very instructive in revealing strengths and weaknesses.
Saturday night's opener against Clemson will teach Coach Mark Richt and his staff much more about his team - and especially about his defense. Because Georgia will be starting three new defensive backs and two new defensive ends, the pass defense ranks as a top concern.
"We've got some issues in the pass rush,'' said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. "We've got some issues in inexperience. The good thing is we see a lot of (passing) in practice. I think it will be a trial. Let's see what happens and how we adjust and adapt. That's a key in the first game.''
Clemson is expected to spread the field with four-receiver formations and utilize the strong passing arm of quarterback Willie Simmons.
"I've still got concerns on the defensive front,'' Richt said. "I've got concerns about our safeties also. The safety position is talented. I don't see a problem (with talent). The inexperience is what concerns us the most.''
Richt is confident that his top four safeties - Kentrell Curry, Sean Jones, Thomas Davis and Greg Blue - are big hitters. He is less certain that the four are ready to provide quality pass coverage support for starting cornerbacks Bruce Thornton and Decory Bryant.
"I don't know if they're as disciplined as they ought to be in terms of being where they supposed to be when they're supposed to be there,'' Richt said. "I've just seen some mistakes that concern me.''
Defensive backs coach Willie Martinez said Wednesday that Davis, a redshirt freshman from Randolph-Clay High School, will start at free safety and Curry will start at rover. Davis will start ahead of Sean Jones in the base defense, but Jones could be on the field for the first play of the game if Georgia opens in its nickel defense with five defensive backs.
The defensive backs can't devote all their attention to Clemson's four receivers. Simmons is more of a drop-back passer than his predecessor, Woodrow Dantzler, but the junior does have the ability to take off with the ball.
Bryant, from Orlando, saw Simmons, from Quincy, Fla., in high school and compares the junior to Georgia quarterback D.J. Shockley.
"He's a pretty mobile quarteback,'' Bryant said. "He has the ability to get outside the pocket. I saw him play in high school so I'm familiar with his ability and what he can do. He's in a way like Shockley, so we're going to be prepared for anything.''
Simmons was a modest 20 of 55 passing for 292 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions as Dantzler's backup last season.
"If you lived in a perfect world, you would not like your quarterback's first start to be in Athens against a nationally ranked team,'' Clemson coach Tommy Bowden said Tuesday. "But that is what we have to do, so I think it will give us a good measuring stick early on where our program is.''
Early in preseason practice, Richt said Bryant was the "most dominating player'' in camp. Bryant then was slowed by a bruised thigh, and Richt said Wednesday that Thornton "had the best camp of the two.''
The spotlight will be on Bryant, who started three games last year, and Thornton, often victimized last season as quarterbacks picked on him instead of 2001 senior Tim Wansley.
Clemson's deep corps of receivers is topped by sophomore Derrick Hamilton, who caught 53 passes for 684 yards and four touchdowns last year.
Also important to Georgia's pass defense will be the ability of new starting ends Robert Geathers, a sophomore, and David Pollack, a sophomore who played defensive tackle last year, to put pressure on Simmons.
Geathers is taking over at the rush end position manned by sacks leader Charles Grant last season.
"Charles played a big role last year,'' Geathers said. "I know my teammates are looking for me to put pressure on the quarterback. It's important that you get pressure even if you don't get the sacks. You get pressure, you make things happen.''
Linebacker Derrick White may help the pass rush as an end in nickel packages. Georgia also hopes to have a strong inside rush from tackles Johnathan Sullivan and Kedric Golston.
Says Richt: "You just can't simulate a ballgame, so we'll see how they play.''
Charles Odum is the beat writer for Dawg Post in Athens. He has over 20 years of experience covering Georgia football. He can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com
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