Returning 10 starters may or may not be a good thing for Georgia football in 2014. In theory, the experience that comes with a veteran-laden squad should make the Bulldogs one of the most competitive teams in the SEC. In actuality, however, concerns abound as the incumbents were part of one of the worst defenses in recent Georgia history.
Only significant improvement by the unit as a whole will elevate this defense to its optimal level, but Damian Swann is the x-factor for the team's defensive development. His ability to transform into a true cover cornerback and emerge as a leader on defense will be vital to the Dawgs' future success.
Where He's Been
For a guy who's started 27 games in a row, Swann largely flies under the radar. While lining up in a defensive backfield that featured three NFL draft picks (cornerback Sanders Commings and safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams), Swann thrived in 2012. He led the team with four interceptions while also registering 53 total tackles.
Admittedly, his sophomore campaign was aided by surrounding talent. As Jarvis Jones and Cornelius Washington pressured quarterbacks and Alec Ogletree roamed the middle of the field, the other veteran defensive backs executed at a high level in their respective roles. Commings, a true cover corner, took away opposing teams' top targets, while Rambo and Williams read passers. This left an opportunistic Swann to make plays when throws were forced. He did so masterfully.
Unfortunately, the ball-hawking skills he displayed as a sophomore did not translate as Swann settled into his new spot as Georgia's primary cornerback in 2013. As young players filled a roster that established veterans once called home, Swann's deficiencies were magnified—perhaps unfairly so.
The season was a disappointment, both individually and corporately, for Swann, who told Seth Emerson of the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer recently, "The way I look at it is we struggled as a whole. I struggled, I had my own struggles, and we struggled as a whole."
|Damian Swann Career Statistics|
|Year||Total Tackles||Tackles for Loss||Sacks||Interceptions||Passes Broken Up||Forced Fumbles||Fumble Recoveries|
Where He Needs to Be
For the entirety of the 2013 season, opponents picked apart Georgia's pass defense. While the front seven did a respectable job of pressuring quarterbacks, cornerbacks (including Swann) mishandled coverages repeatedly, while safeties continually seemed lost in space. The deficiencies of the defensive backs fed off of each other and exacerbated the group's woes.
For the unit to take a step in the right direction, Swann must improve from a technical standpoint. His athleticism and instincts are more than sufficient, and he's certainly physical enough to play with some of the league's best receivers. Far too often, however, he relies on those inherent gifts and innate skill sets. Far too often, opposing receivers blow by him.
His development in one-on-one coverage will take pressure off the safeties and the opposite cornerback.
Equally beneficial, if Swann can establish himself as a lockdown defensive back during spring practice and the offseason, he will also emerge as the leader of the Georgia defense. In 2013, the unit lacked direction. Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's squad was home to only one senior starter, and continued lackluster efforts by the collective whole kept even the standouts (linebackers Ramik Wilson and Amarlo Herrera and defensive end Ray Drew) from properly captaining the squad.
As a senior, Swann's leadership will be needed. As the best defensive back on the team, it will be validated.
Swann's Potential Impact
Many felt Swann's junior campaign could be his last in Athens. This time last year, an early jump to the NFL seemed plausible. While a disappointing season may keep him at Georgia for another year, Swann's talent and potential remains sky high.
Swann told David Paschall of the Chattanooga Times Free Press he didn't think too hard about leaving after this season. He added, "I want to be one of those first two-round guys, and to that that you've got to put it on tape."
By all accounts, the talented cornerback is striving for that status. If he reaches that pinnacle, a 2014 Georgia defense will look completely different, even with a whole lot of familiar faces. And that is a very good thing.