We know two things for sure about Georgia’s secondary
1. Kelee Ringo will be UGA’s top Cornerback.
2. Christopher Smith will return at Safety to anchor the back end of Georgia’s defense.
Kelee Ringo started last season as the ultra talented recruit who Georgia was hoping would hold up opposite of established veteran Derion Kendrick. He had some freshman moments early in the season, but as the year went along he proved himself.
Ringo played 516 coverage snaps while giving up just 24 receptions on 59 targets. His 40.6% reception percentage was the lowest of any player to see significant snaps in the UGA back seven. The 346 receiving yards he allowed were less than Kendrick. Quarterbacks targeting Ringo in 2021 had a passer rating of just 63.2, which was third lowest on the team after Kendrick and Christopher Smith.
Georgia plays a lot of match zone coverage, but they do go man more than most teams. Ringo saw the highest number of man coverage snaps last year and he gave up 1 reception for every 18.1 snaps in man. That’s really good, but what’s elite is Ringo’s ability to cover ground in zone. He gave up 1 reception for every 27.1 snaps in zone. That’s elite and it was by far the best ratio of any UGA starter in 2021.
Ringo’s toughest game came against Alabama in the National Championship game. He gave up 8 receptions on 12 targets and allowed 141 yards on those catches, the long coming on a 61-yard catch by Cameron Latu where Ringo ran him down inside the 10. Kelee got caught with his head turned a couple of times and misplayed some routes, but when the game was on the line he delivered Georgia a championship sealing pick-six. Another offseason should turn him into a more savvy corner and make him more adept at knowing when to turn around and play the ball.
Christopher Smith was the quiet name in Georgia’s back end last year, but he is crucial to Georgia’s defensive scheme. He has elite coverage skills for a safety and can step into the slot corner position if needed. His reception percentage allowed last year was 69.2%, which on its surface sounds high. In reality, he locked down his assignments so well that he was rarely targeted. In 15 games he gave up a total of just 130 yards in coverage. Opposing QB’s had a rating of just 53.8 when throwing to his man last season.
In 2021 he played 146 snaps as the “Star” or slot corner for the Bulldogs and 386 snaps as a free safety. He excels in both roles, and he is UGA’s best Safety or Slot DB. Through the first week of UGA’s 2022 fall camp it sounds like Smith is patrolling the back end at his safety spot. It would be a surprise if he’s not playing there regularly this year, but if UGA comes across a particularly problematic slot receiver don’t be shocked if Smith rotates down to cover him.
Like most teams in college football, UGA’s defense has a fifth DB on the field more of then than not. In most cases that player is covering the opposition’s slot receiver, but depending on down/distance/personnel you will see UGA’s safeties and linebackers pick up the slot player as well.
Tykee Smith transferred into UGA before last season after being PFF’s highest rated slot defender in all of college football. He is an excellent blitzer and has fantastic coverage skills, but injuries derailed his 2021 season. In two years at West Virginia he produced 54 “stop plays” (A stop play is when an offense fails to gain half the yards needed for a first down on 1st or 2nd down and fails to gain a first down on 3rd down).
He only played 7 snaps for Georgia last year. 6 were at Star and 1 at Free Safety. Through the first week of camp it sounds like Smith still has some work to do to return to his old form. A year’s worth of lower body injuries makes it really hard to condition, and it will take some time for him to come back to 100%. He could give UGA a boost in the secondary in October or November, and we may see him come in when UGA plays packages with 6 DB’s. For now, the focus is on getting him back into his old form. If he can do that then playing time will come to him in 2022. So who is UGA’s opening day player at Star?
William Poole III spent an entire career as a reserve player before being thrust into the Nickel role for Latavious Brini and earning the starting role in the SEC Championship. On that day he gave up 8 receptions on 10 targets as Alabama worked the slot over and over. In Indianapolis he was a different player, holding his assignments to 29 yards on 9 targets and registering 2 pass breakups. He made a textbook break on the ball on 3rd-and-10 right after UGA scored to go up by a point in the 4th quarter of the national championship game. That play git UGA the ball back and set them up for a long drive to go up 8. His play was one of the most clutch pass breakups in UGA history.
The question for Georgia is which Poole is the one they can expect in 2022? If it is the Indy version of Poole then I think he will regularly patrol the Star position. Poole is a savvy cover corner who is experienced and knows the Georgia defense. He saw the highest percentage of snaps in man coverage of any UGA DB in 2021, giving up just 58 yards on 13 targets. Teams tested him often, especially in man coverage. When Poole was targeted once every 4.8 snaps when playing man coverage. The willingness to put Poole on an island in man despite him being short on game experience says that Georgia’s staff trusted him, and that trust was ultimately rewarded in Indianapolis.
The most impressive stat I found on Poole is that he had UGA’s highest forced incompletion percentage in 2021. He had a PBU on 19% of the plays where he was targeted, and never drew a penalty flag for interference. That is a corner who knows how to play the ball cleanly.
There may be matchups where the opposing WR has more high end speed and in those cases we might see Javon Bullard come onto the field. Either way, I expect Poole to take the majority of the snaps as the Slot CB in 2022.
Javon Bullard flashed some impressive speed in the spring game and picked off Stetson Bennett on the goal line to end the first half on G-Day. A reserve in 2021, Bullard only has 65 career coverage snaps. On those snaps he’s allowed just 31 yards, but the sample size is admittedly small. Bullard has been one of the secondary players I have heard the most positive reviews of so far during camp. Don’t be surprised if he is UGA’s 5th or 6th DB in certain packages versus Oregon. I think we will see him in meaningful moments in 2022.
Dan Jackson is back after playing significant snaps for Georgia last year and feels like the safest choice for Georgia at Strong Safety. There’s a perception that Jackson struggles to cover WR’s with elite speed, but Jackson was actually VERY good for UGA in man coverage in 2021. He gave up just 1 reception for every 22.3 snaps in man coverage, which was the second best ration on UGA’s team after Christopher Smith. Jackson has a high floor and a lower ceiling at this position, but I don’t know if anyone can actually pick on him on the regular season schedule. He’s a really good safety, but if UGA wants an elite safety they will need to look elsewhere on the roster.
In a scenario where Georgia goes a different route would David Daniel-Sisavanh potentially step in? Daniel only gave up 2 receptions in 51 coverage snaps last year but he mostly played in garbage time. So far in this fall camp he seems to be running with the second team pretty consistently.
The highest ceiling for the position might come in the form of true freshman Malaki Starks. Can UGA get him up to speed quick enough to take on the Safety role in 2022? Starks was the top rated recruit in Georgia’s 2022 class and he possesses rare speed and instincts. There was question when he was coming into the program as to whether or not Georgia would try to play him as a safety or a linebacker, but he has been focused on honing his secondary skills since arriving in January.
Starks has been one of the surprises of fall camp so far. Do not be surprised if he is playing in come Dime and Quarter packages. He has the perfect body to play as UGA’s Nickel Sam or Dime Jack when the Bulldogs want to roll with more DB’s on the field and are facing Spread attacks. The beauty of Starks is that he is a very sound tackler who should be great as a blitzer or when asked to spy on or rush the quarterback.
Don’t count out true freshman JaCorey Thomas when considering the safety room at Georgia. I think he’s still a year or two from playing meaningful snaps, but he has the talent to push the players in front of him and could be seen late in games in 2022.
This is where things get really muddy for Georgia. Kamari Lassiter is the returning CB with the most career snaps other than Ringo and started opposite of Ringo in Georgia’s spring game. In just 79 coverage snaps last season he gave up 19 yards per catch on 9 receptions while being targeted 14 times. Those snaps are almost all garbage time and his 171 yards allowed are half or more of the amount of yards that Ringo and Kendrick gave up in over 6 times the snaps played. That’s the bad.
The good? Lassiter has been the second best CB through a week of fall camp, and some sources think he will be the guy to hold onto the job into the season. Lassiter is an even 6’0” but he is bulky for a guy his size and would likely hold up well with physical outsider WR’s in the SEC.
Nyland Green was a much heralded recruit in the Class of 2021, but he played just 4 snaps last season and he appears to be the main competitor with Lassiter for the CB2 role so far this preseason. He was the 2nd team DB on G-Day but struggled at times, but I have been told there are moments where he puts all of his ample physical gifts to use and is able to really flash. If the light comes on for Green he could grab the starting CB role and never give it back.
Opposite of Green on G-Day was true freshman Daylen Everette. He showed some moments of five-star potential in the spring game. In other moments he looked like a guy who was just a few months into being a college student. Everette might have the highest ceiling of any of the young DB’s competing for this spot, but time will tell if he gets enough reps in camp to get a good grasp on the scheme and find a groove in practices. If things don’t go according to plan with Lassiter or Green he could find himself on th field quickly.
Georgia’s 2022 recruiting class featured one of the best collections of defensive backs in school history. Everette, Thomas and Starks were part of it, but it also included other names. Marcus Washington was a heralded 2023 CB recruit who decided to reclassify into the 2022 class this spring. This is a learning year for him.
Houston native Julian Humphrey was a top 100 player for most of the cycle before shutting down some of the nation’s best receivers in his class at the Army All-American Bowl and becoming a five-star.
Jaheim Singeltary is another five-star who joined the class out of Jacksonville, FL. For much of the recruiting cycle Singeltary looked like he might be the top Cornerback in his class.
There’s a lot of talent… But right now there’s no telling which of these players will end up in the CB spot opposite of Ringo. Don’t be shocked if you see UGA rotating players in the spot early in the season.
I know some of the terminology around UGA’s defense can be confusing. Stay tuned to DawgsCentral for an upcoming video breaking down how UGA’s secondary concepts work. If you haven’t subscribed to DawgsCentral then what are you waiting for? This type of analysis is just the tip of the iceberg compared to what’s inside. Click smarter with DawgsCentral!