ATHENS, Ga. - For all the focus on Georgia having to play without injured receivers Fred Gibson and Damien Gary last week against Florida, it is possible that the more crucial missing player was linebacker Chris Clemons.
With Clemons out with a sprained ankle, Georgia moved Boss Bailey to Clemons' weakside linebacker spot and, in a surprise, started redshirt freshman Thomas Davis at Bailey's strongside linebacker spot.
Though he was projected as a linebacker when he signed with Georgia out of Randolph-Clay High School, Davis had worked at free safety this season before last week's move.
Even though the strongside linebacker spot has more pass coverage responsibility, it is regarded by Georgia's coaches as an easier position to learn and also is seen as the best fit for Davis' size and speed.
The option, which may look more attractive in hindsight, would have been to start true freshman Tony Taylor for Clemons and leave the athletic Bailey to utilize his speed and experience against the Florida's screen passes. Taylor had earned positive reviews for his fill-in work against Kentucky when Clemons was injured.
"I felt Tony has been coming on, but I didn't want to start him in that situation against Florida,'' said defensive coordinator Brian VanGorder. "We feel like Thomas Davis is a big-play kind of guy. We've got to get him on the field more.''
The unfortunate result for Davis and the Georgia defense was the young player was thrust into the point of attack play after play against Florida's screen passes. Rex Grossman and the Gators completed 36 of 46 passes for 339 yards in the 20-13 win over Georgia.
Though the Georgia defense gave up only 13 points - Florida also scored on an interception return - the quick passes were effective as a ball-control device that kept the Georgia offense off the field.
Now Davis and the Georgia defense is preparing for more quick passes from quarterback Eli Manning and the Mississippi offense, which leads the Southeastern Conference in passing - one spot ahead of Florida. The No. 7 Bulldogs play host to Ole Miss Saturday night at 7 in a game to be televised by ESPN.
Though Clemons has returned to practice this week, Davis' move to linebacker "is probably permanent,'' according to VanGorder. If Clemons is not ready to start or play every down, Davis could again have to play a key role.
Davis, who started the first two games of the season at free safety and had since played behind Sean Jones, played a season-high 64 snaps against Florida. Much of the time, he admits, he was just trying to catch up.
"I was ready but it was like I kind of got caught off guard with (Florida's) no-huddle (offense),'' Davis said. "I didn't get set on a lot of plays.''
Added VanGorder: "He struggled (with screens) for the most part. Like I always say, experience, experience, experience. A lot of that was my fault.''
Compared to Grossman's east-west passes last week, Manning is expected to attack more downfield against Georgia (8-1 overall, 5-1 SEC).
Like Grossman, who was sacked only once by the Bulldogs, Manning delivers quick passes. Also like Grossman, Manning will take advantage of a soft defense with short screens underneath the coverage.
"We'll be prepared,'' Davis promised.
"Eli is a great quarterback. We just have to prepare for him. We just know we've got to try to stop him from getting big plays.''
In his last three starts, Manning passed for 219 yards against Alabama, 414 yards against Arkansas and 284 yards against Auburn, but he threw six interceptions with his five touchdowns and the Rebels lost all three games.
Ole Miss ranks last in the league, and 105th in the nation, in rushing, and too often Manning has been left to carry all the offense. Manning, a junior, leads the league in passing, but that is no reason to celebrate when the Rebels (5-4 overall, 2-3 in the SEC) are still trying to qualify for a bowl bid.
"Eli has had a tremendous year,'' said Ole Miss coach David Cutcliffe. "We have been very inconsistent running the football. ... I don't think there's a tougher job than playing quarterback in this league when you're not effective running the football.''
Manning had the Rebels in position to pull back to a tie in last week's 31-24 loss at Auburn before throwing a key third-down interception.
"We're throwing the ball more now,'' Manning said. "Our running game hasn't been there. Maybe sometimes I'm trying to get something started too much. That's part of being frustrated with the offense and not doing as well as we think we should.''