ATHENS, Ga. — No one would suggest that the debut of Georgia's young secondary was a polished display.
Instead, it was more about surviving. For the first game, surviving with a win was enough.
"I think the best thing we did was just finish the game, finish the drill,'' said cornerback Bruce Thornton of Saturday night's season-opening win over Clemson.
There were reasons for concern:
Thornton was beaten on a 21-yard touchdown pass near the end of the first half.
Clemson might have had two more scores if not for drops on deep routes.
There were breakdowns in communications in the secondary, especially among safeties seeing their first game action.
The fact Clemson's receivers were able to get behind the pass defense with such frequency was a troubling sign.
Still, the secondary gave up only the one scoring pass and a modest total of 165 yards passing in the game — numbers that usually give a team a chance to win.
"For me, for the first game, I thought we played pretty good,'' Thornton said. "With all the adversity we faced, overall I still think we held our ground.''
Added Coach Mark Richt when asked to grade the play of the defensive backs:
"Not bad. The thing they graded out the most positive on was how hard they played. They played hard. They competed hard.''
A year ago, Thornton was the weak link as the most inexperienced starter in the secondary. Now, thanks to the exits of safeties Jermaine Phillips and Terreal Bierria and cornerback Tim Wansley, Thornton is left as the lone holdover from the 2001 unit.
After much shuffling in preseason practice, Georgia settled on redshirt freshman Thomas Davis as the starting free safety and Kentrell Curry as the starting rover. Greg Blue, also a redshirt freshman, saw substantial playing time.
Thornton and Decory Bryant were set throughout preseason drills as the starting cornerbacks. The surprise was the amount of playing time logged by true freshmen DeMario Minter and Tim Jennings in backup roles, due mostly to Clemson's reliance on four-receiver sets.
For Georgia secondary coach Willie Martinez, the most encouraging signs from the opener were that the freshmen and redshirt freshmen showed the same strengths in their first game that had impressed coaches on the practice field.
Most notable were the big hits delivered by Blue and Davis. Blue was credited with eight solo tackles and one pass deflection. Davis added seven stops.
Minter broke up one pass and added two tackles.
Ryan Davis (three tackles) and Kenny Bailey also played at cornerback.
"We gained confidence in Minter and in Jennings, though he didn't play as much as Minter,'' Richt said. "Thomas Davis, he's a veteran now, and Blue did some very good things. Curry played an outstanding game. He's been the most consistent guy back there.''
NOTES: For the first time since early in freshman practice, linebacker Marquis Elmore joined contact drills Wednesday.
Before Wednesday, Elmore had been wearing a green, non-contact jersey as he recovered from arthroscopic back surgery last month.
Said Elmore: "It felt all right. It was kind of hard, since it was my first day back.''
Athletics director Vince Dooley celebrated his 70th birthday Wednesday. He was 32 in 1964 when he coached his first game at Georgia.
Dooley was given a fancy golf cart with four-wheel drive from his wife, Barbara.
"I want to see how she paid for it,'' said Dooley with a smile. "I know I'm going to get the bill.''
Dooley retired as football coach following the 1988 season and plans to retire as athletics director in May of 2004.
Richt said junior defensive end Shedrick Wynn, who entered preseason drills listed as the No. 3 "Buck'' defensive end, did not play against Clemson due to a suspension that will last two more games. Wynn is being disciplined for an undisclosed violation of team rules.
Wynn, who recorded 12 tackles in eight games last season, continues to practice with the team but cannot play before the Sept. 28 game against New Mexico State.
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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