Swann had a breakout year in 2012 and established himself as a rightful member of the seasoned Georgia secondary. Only a sophomore, he started all 13 games and tallied 47 tackles (ninth on team) and two sacks – but above all – forced four takeaways.
And he’s doing it when the Bulldogs need him most.
Swann’s most impressive outing thus far came against Ole Miss in November, when he recovered two fumbles and helped shut down the Rebels’ passing attack. But the week before, in Jacksonville, Swann’s name echoed through television sets and into living rooms across the country.
The Atlanta native was a major factor in Georgia’s tilt with then-No. 2 Florida, helping secure the 17-9 victory over the hated Gators.
On the very first drive of the game his sack of Florida quarterback Jeff Driskel forced a fumble that was quickly recovered by Jarvis Jones. Three plays later Georgia took a lead it wouldn’t relinquish following a ten-yard touchdown run by Todd Gurley. In the third quarter, Swann forced another Driskel turnover in Florida territory – this time an interception that set up Marshall Morgan for a comfortable 29-yard field goal.
Swann was responsible for a ten-point swing that afternoon, but remained humble when questioned about his performance.
“I was just in the right position to make plays,” Swann said of his outing versus the Gators. “You don’t really deserve an opportunity; people have to give you one.”
But SEC opposition hasn’t been alone in dishing up opportunities for the young cornerback. Richt and his staff have been instrumental in Swann’s success as well.
“The coaches really believe in me, which gives me the confidence to go out and just play,” Swann said. “I was given a chance the whole season, and I’ve made the best of it. My playmaking ability is what got me in the position I’m in now.”
That ability stems from his days at Grady High School in downtown Atlanta, where Swann thrived on all sides of the ball for coach Ronnie Millen’s Grey Knights. Though primarily utilized as a cornerback, Swann also wreaked havoc on opposing secondaries as a wide receiver. In fact, some of his Bulldog teammates believed that was the position he would wind up playing in Athens.
“I didn’t even think he was going to play defense,” said linebacker Amarlo Herrera, who also grew up in Atlanta and knew Swann before teaming up in Athens. “I really thought he was going to play wide receiver because he played offense so well in high school. I always thought he was a better offensive player than defensive.”
Swann’s versatility wasn’t confined to just skill positions though. He started at quarterback for Grady during the final five games of his sophomore year and likely would have remained there if Millen weren’t facing a depleted receiving core heading into the 2009 season.
But, perhaps surprisingly, is not even Swann’s favorite sport.
Swann’s passion for athletics began on the baseball diamond when he was just four years old and playing catch with his father, Marlon. The two developed an inseparable bond throughout Swann’s upbringing with Marlon coaching each one of Swann’s teams until he was 16.
“It was the greatest experience of my life,” Marlon Swann said. “He was my little right hand man. I’m sad that it’s over, but they all have to grow up at some point. You lead them and coach them until it’s time to go.”
That point came in 2007 when Swann was on the brink of high school. The family lived on the southwest side of Atlanta, which put Swann in the thick of not only the Therrell High district, but an unfavorable predicament as well. Swann believed that “Therell wasn’t really at the top,” both athletically and academically, so he and his parents underwent an extensive transfer request process to allow Swann to play at Grady.
The family began planning the transfer as early as Swann’s seventh grade year. Along with his wife, Mona (Swann’s mother), Marlon conducted vast research to find the best fit within reasonable proximity to their home. He said the entire operation mirrored the one his family would undergo four years later when Swann was courted by a bulk of collegiate programs.
“We went through the process like it was a recruiting situation,” Marlon Swann said. “Grady was the clear-cut favorite. We visited the weight room, met with the coaches and what not. Then we all sat down and came up with a way to make it work.”
Once at Grady, Swann became a four-sport athlete for the Grey Knights, competing in baseball, basketball, football and track. His all-around athletic versatility garnered national attention from some of the top collegiate programs, including Auburn, Florida, Ohio State, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Tennessee among others.
It was Nick Saban and the Crimson Tide, however, who had the early leg up on the recruiting competition. Swann said that he bonded well with former Alabama linebacker coach James Willis at the time, but when Willis took the defensive coordinator position at Texas Tech, Swann’s mind wavered.
And that’s when Alabama defensive coordinator Kirby Smart stepped in. Smart knew that Swann was a multifaceted prize and didn’t want to lose his interest of suiting up in crimson.
“Kirby started contacting me more and visiting me more than any other coach,” Swann said. “During the recruiting process, that’s who I thought I was going to play for –– until I met coach (Todd) Grantham.”
Georgia’s defensive coordinator made a sound impact on the Swann family, noting that his NFL experience could prove highly beneficial if their son joined the Bulldogs.
“It speaks volumes for a guy who is making millions on one level to come down and coach kids,” Marlon Swann, Damian’s father, said. “I think Damian really appreciated that he had made the move from the pro level to college.”
Grantham –– and Richt for that matter –– also welcomed Swann’s aspirations of becoming a dual-sport athlete, something other schools weren’t too thrilled about.
“I knew (baseball) was something important to him,” Richt said. “We were willing to work with him on that.”
Swann came to Athens with full intentions of playing both, but one thing stood in his way –– himself. Swann’s rapid climb up the defensive depth chart has him poised to become the No. 1 corner for the Bulldogs over the next two years. Managing that, along with grades, a social life and baseball is something he believes will be extremely difficult.
“I still think about it sometimes, but I’ve kind of let it go,” Swann said of his favorite sport. “I haven’t played baseball since I got to Georgia, and it’s not a sport where you can go out and just do it. You have to get back into baseball shape.”
“It’ll take a lot just to start back playing baseball, so I don’t really think I’ll be going back down that route.”
Marlon and the Swann family were saddened by the reality of Damian’s circumstances, but he said he’s already seen his resolve mold Damian into a stronger person.
“It was probably the hardest decision he’s ever had to make,” Marlon said. “He just turned 20, so he hasn’t had to make many big decisions like that. It’s a lot for someone that age.”
Swann hasn’t completely shut the door on stepping into the batter’s box, but to cope with it for now, he is embracing his role on the football team. He will face a tall task next year when he becomes the lone veteran of what will be a young secondary. The entire 2012 starting unit, Swann notwithstanding –– Branden Smith, Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams –– played their final collegiate game in the Capital One Bowl on New Year’s Day.
Swann and his teammates and coaches, however, aren’t worried about how he will handle the challenge. After all, he’s been a leader his whole life. Throughout peewee ball under Marlon’s tutelage and in all of his days at Grady, Swann was a captain on every team he played for with the lone exception of his freshman year.
“Leadership is naturally in his body,” Marlon said. “He’s going to do a hell of a job filling in next year. I’ve got all the confidence in the world in him.”
Some teammates say that Swann has already started filling that role at Georgia – attributing his hard work for his breakout performance in just two short seasons.
“He’s a leader now as a sophomore,” Commings said. “Right now, in this secondary full of seniors, he’s kind of leading by example and doing everything the right way. He studies hard and works hard in the weight room –– that’s why he’s able to come in and produce at a young age.”