Dawgs try to replace all-star safety

Tra Battle

ATHENS – Georgia has had three straight first-team All-Americans at safety, and none of them earned that honor with their pass coverage skills.

Sean Jones, Thomas Davis and Greg Blue, particularly Davis and Blue, all caught the eye of national voters, not to mention NFL scouts, with bone-jarring hits that filled television highlights and made offensive players lose sleep at night.

Entering the 2006 season, there is no heir apparent head-hunter. Senior Tra Battle of Forsyth and junior Kelin Johnson of Daytona Beach, Fla., are veterans with All-SEC potential but with a little less beef than their predecessors at safety.

"We've been playing with a bunch of freak-of-nature guys, so we've been spoiled," defensive coordinator and secondary coach Willie Martinez said.

Johnson weighs around 190 pounds, and Battle struggles to stay near 180.

"The real issue is not the willingness of our safeties to hit you," Coach Mark Richt said, "but the bodies they've got behind it."

No one on the Bulldogs' coaching staff is pining publicily for Jones or Davis or Blue, though. Instead, they're looking at the bright side.

Georgia -- like most other teams in the country, according to Richt – has become more committed in recent years to bringing one safety up to help stop its opponent's running game. When players like Blue and Davis were around, they were the obvious choice to support the run, and opposing teams knew it and expected it.

Now, Richt said, the Bulldogs have two safeties who are so close in stature and ability that the defense can be less predictable in moving one forward.

"We've got it where either guy can spin down or drop back," he said. "When you've got a guy like Blue, it was more apt to be Greg (who supported the run)."

"It'll give us more flexibility, yes," Martinez said. "That's what we've always strived for, to get to a point where they're the same. We had that with Sean Jones and Thomas Davis in 2003."

Battle and Johnson are the clear cut starters after two weeks of fall practice, Martinez said. Sophomore CJ Byrd, the South Carolina prep player of the year in 2004, has emerged as the top backup at both positions.

"Byrd is coming out of his shell," Richt said, "starting to play like the player we knew he'd be one day."

Redshirt freshman Donavon Baldwin is a step behind the top three safeties, Martinez said, and true freshmen Reshad Jones and Quintin Banks are another level back, which is to be expected, Martinez said.

Redshirt freshman safety Antavious Coates suffered a season-ending knee injury last week, which increased the chance that Jones or Banks would play this year. However, neither freshman is guaranteed to see time.

"Not as long as everybody stays healthy," Martinez said, "but if they're ready and they're showing production, they'll play."

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