Many anticipated electrifying speedster Branden Smith to cement himself at the top of the depth chart.
After all, Smith, a sophomore, was one of the most coveted cornerback recruits Georgia has signed in the past decade, and fans like to see blue-chip recruits live up to the hype early.
But a lesser-used rising senior thwarted Smith’s advances.
Vance Cuff’s name began to be thrown around by coaches and players from the very beginning of spring practice.
The Moultrie native entered spring with only one career start to his credit, never having intercepted a pass in three seasons.
When all was said and done, Cuff was named one of the Most Improved Players on defense—and as the starting corner—after spring drills.
Despite Cuff winning the spring battle, the war for the spot is still far from over.
“I wouldn’t put too much into those post-spring depth charts at all,” said cornerback Brandon Boykin. “I mean, it’s just kind of like giving you an idea of who is where, but we still have to go through the fall and summer and freshmen coming in. With things like that, you really don’t know.”
Smith spent much of his time, and made more of an impact, on offense in 2009. He lined up at quarterback, running back and wide receiver, rushing 17 times for 208 yards and two touchdowns.
Don’t expect Smith to disappear from offensive packages in 2010, but there is an emphasis from the coaching staff to better prepare him for defensive work.
“We want to use Branden offensively still because he was very effective,” coach Mark Richt said. “But he will probably be getting a lot more work on the defensive side of the ball, and he may very well be the starter by the time the season rolls around.”
Also spending time with the kick and punt return teams last season, Smith’s variety of roles stunted his defensive growth, he admitted.
“I wish I could have played defense a little more last year, but on the other hand, I’m just here to help the team win, that’s all,” Smith said.
Smith entered spring the favorite to claim the job, but under new secondary coach Scott Lakatos each player had to adjust to the new pressing technique and man-to-man philosophy.
Aside from Boykin, who enjoyed a breakout year last season, the rest of the secondary entered spring with a clean-slate, and a chance to prove themselves worthy.
Cuff thrived under Lakatos’ ideas and direction, as it became clear the battle would be between he and Smith for the job.
“It’s a little different,” Cuff said. “But you know, football is football. There aren’t too many things you can say that are going to be different, as long as you’re talking about football.”
Cuff’s success doesn’t mean Smith didn’t take to his new teacher as well. Performing slightly behind Cuff, Smith also enjoyed a productive spring.
“Coach Lakatos is real different from [former] coach [Willie] Martinez,” Smith said. “Both of them have their ways, just teaching different stuff. Now we’ve got to learn the things (Lakatos) is teaching us, and his teaching style is way different. Coach Lakatos, he sits down and shows us how to do things. He is a teacher, really.”
Not resting on accomplishments from spring, Cuff entered summer workouts understanding Smith would be right on his heels to take the job should he slip.
Although the position battle is a friendly competition, and both players have said they want what’s best for the team, Cuff is a senior with only one more year to make his mark at Georgia.
“Like I said earlier, I think everybody is pretty much on the same playing field,” Boykin said. “Both of them are looking really good. Branden and Cuff—they both can play each position—wide, short and nickel so we’re just really trying to see what the strengths of each and every person here so I think coach Lakatos can see what we’re doing in the summer and put people there in the fall.”