Dawgs' Secondary is Stout

ATHENS – CJ Byrd isn't ready to say this year's secondary is better than what Georgia has had in the past. It's a bit too early for that.

He's not even saying the unit that returns three of four starters from last year has found all its key players yet.

But there is one thing Byrd is pretty certain makes this year's defensive backfield special.

"I think the difference is the speed," Byrd said. "We've got a lot more speed than we usually have."

Speed is the name of the game in today's college football landscape, according to defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, and Georgia has plenty of it.

The Bulldogs return Byrd, Asher Allen and Prince Miller from last year's starting crew, and will see more playing time from burners like Reshad Jones, Quinton Banks and John Knox this season.

"I don't know if it's the fastest," Martinez said, "but they're pretty quick as a group."

That's crucial with more and more college programs moving to some variation of the spread offense – the same one division rival Florida rode to a national title two years ago.

The spread is designed to create space for receivers, and without tacklers who can close gaps quickly, defenses are doomed to chase down opponents deep into the secondary.

"I think the whole defense, you need to be able to run on defense, especially with these offenses now," Martinez said. "You've got to have guys that can run in space."

Speed won't be Georgia's only weapon, however. Despite losing safety Kelin Johnson, the Bulldogs have more than a half dozen defensive backs with game experience under their belts.

Byrd, Allen and Miller combined for five interceptions and 132 tackles in 2007, and free safety Reshad Jones, who will take over for Johnson, picked off two passes and finished third on the team with 57 tackles, despite starting just two games.

"We've got a lot of people coming back, and we've got a lot of chemistry that is still there," Allen said of the group.

The hyperkinetic Johnson will be missed in the locker room, but head coach Mark Richt said the safeties in camp have been particularly impressive so far.

"Those safeties are outstanding," Richt said. "Byrd and Reshad and Q. Banks, those three, they look more ready to play than anybody else."

That doesn't exactly satisfy Martinez, however.

Georgia's defense thrived on its depth last season, and Martinez said he'd like to see a five-man rotation at safety by the time the season starts. Knox, a redshirt freshman, has the inside track on the fourth spot, but the fifth spot is wide open, Martinez said.

"We have the bodies," he said, "but they're not ready right now."

That means one of the freshmen on the team will likely need to step up, and the list of candidates is full of potential, according to Martinez.

Brandon Boykin has earned raves in camp and was praised by Richt for his conditioning, while Makiri Pugh, Baccari Rambo, Nick Williams and Sanders Commings have all shown glimpses of their potential.

"I like them all, I really do," Martinez said. "They're athletic, they've got speed, they have a willingness to learn. They're workers. I really am excited about the five guys probably more than ever."

The depth and talent in Georgia's secondary should also help the guys up front, and with three division rivals likely using first-year starters at quarterback, the potential for sacks and turnovers is high.

"Teams with great cornerbacks, you get coverage sacks, and pressure creates interception opportunities for the DBs, so it just works off of each other," Allen said. "If we can work off each other, we've all got a chance to be great."

As the Bulldogs found out in a 35-14 loss to Tennessee last year, however, the names on the uniform and loads of ability don't guarantee anything. That was a turning point, Jones said. And it might be the most important thing this year's secondary brings back from 2007.

"We've got all the tools, but it's up to us," Allen said. "I think we have the talent, but will we (improve)? That's the big question."

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