Sammy Watkins is not too impressed with the Georgia Bulldogs, and he plans on showing them why Saturday.
The Bulldogs are legitimate national title contenders; however, their Achilles’ heel could be a secondary that lost three starters and four of the unit’s top five performers from a season ago.
Gone are Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings, Shawn Williams and Branden Smith. Between those four players, the ‘Dawgs lose 127 games started and 32 career interceptions. That is a lot of production to replace, especially in the season’s first week against an opponent as potent as Clemson.
No doubt, Watkins has noticed.
In an interview with the Greenville News (h/t Bart Wright, USA Today), Watkins could hardly contain his excitement for this weekend’s matchup:
If we come out and beat Georgia, not just beat 'em but beat the mess out of 'em like we should, I don't see no problems in getting started in the right direction. I don't have disrespect for them or for nobody else, I just believe we can be just the kind of team we want to be, the talent is here, we know how to win.
Watkins did later try to backpedal from his comments. “It really did surprise me. I think I kind of worded it the wrong way. But I definitely have the utmost respect for Georgia,” he said, via Aaron Brenner of The Post and Courier.
Watkins’ comments are clear; Clemson feels it will be able to score at ease, and Watkins will have a huge day.
Damian Swann, a potential All-SEC cornerback, will likely draw the assignment of following Watkins around. Swann, coming off a two-interception performance in the Capital One Bowl, will be ready for the challenge. He won’t be able to do it alone, however. Watkins cannot only beat teams deep; he has outstanding run-after-catch ability and breaks tackles like a big, strong running back.
Sophomore Sheldon Dawson and freshman Reggie Wilkerson will play opposite of Swann. Dawson played in all 13 games last season but mostly on special teams.
Georgia’s biggest hole is at safety. Rambo and Williams’ experience will be tough to replace. True freshman Tray Matthews, an early enrollee, is in line to start at free safety. An intelligent and instinctive player, Matthews could be in for a rude awakening in his first college game. Watkins is arguably the best receiver in the country, and the free safety will be responsible for the deep middle of the field, where Watkins will often roam.
Is Matthews ready for this?
Physically, Matthews will be fine, but starting your first career game as a true freshman against Boyd and Watkins will be a tall order.
Josh Harvey-Clemons is Georgia’s starter at strong safety. The 6’5”, 220-pound sophomore is an impressive physical specimen. Unfortunately for Georgia, Harvey-Clemons will be suspended for this weekend’s contest. Harvey-Clemons’ physical presence will be sorely missed. It also hurts in the sense that the ‘Dawgs lose one of their only secondary players with actual college experience.
Senior Connor Norman, a former walk-on, will start at strong safety Saturday, as Harvey-Clemons’ top backup, junior Corey Moore, will also miss the game.
Norman will know his assignments, but is he athletic enough to make plays in space against a team as athletic as Clemson? Tigers offensive coordinator Chad Morris will try to isolate Norman in one-on-one situations as much as possible.
At least Norman has played a collegiate snap before. Georgia’s current two-deep depth chart features 10 of 22 players who have not played a collegiate game. Eight of those players are true freshmen.
Complicating matters further for UGA’s secondary is the presence of Martavis Bryant. At 6’5”, 200 pounds, Bryant has the size to give any secondary trouble. However, it is his big-play ability that should concern the ‘Dawgs. Bryant, a junior, has only 19 career catches at an average of 27.7 yards per catch. Six of those receptions are touchdowns. He will shine playing opposite of Watkins.
The secondary may actually end up being better talent-wise than the group it replaced. Experience is tough to replace, though, especially against an elite offense in a hostile environment.
Fortunately for the Bulldogs, Aaron Murray and Co. will score a lot of points. Will they score enough to defeat the No. 8 team in the country, on the road, with only three returning defensive starters?
It’s really too bad the Bulldogs don’t open the season against, say, the Buffalo Bulls. That matchup came one year too late for Georgia. The Bulldogs' quest for the school’s first national championship since 1980 begins in earnest on Saturday; will they be able to survive Clemson? Not if they can’t slow down Watkins.