Georgia's other No. 11 ready for Clemson

Georgia's other No. 11 ready for Clemson

August 29th, 2013 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia safety Connor Norman closes in on a tackle during the 2012 season opener against Buffalo.

Photo by Contributed Photo/Times Free Press.

ATHENS, Ga. -- For most of his Georgia football career, senior safety Connor Norman has been that "other No. 11."

Norman started out at Presbyterian College in 2009 before transferring to Georgia as a walk-on and sitting out the 2010 season. He was given the same jersey number as Bulldogs starting quarterback Aaron Murray, which has led to countless occasions of mistaken identity during crowded "Dawg Walks" before games at Sanford Stadium.

"I kind of try to ignore it, because you don't really want to play along with it," Norman said this week. "I just keep walking, but it is kind of funny that I ended up having the same number as our starting quarterback."

The unfamiliarity with Norman is about to change -- and drastically. The 5-foot-10, 201-pounder from the Atlanta suburb of Duluth will be the starting strong safety Saturday night when the No. 5 Bulldogs visit No. 8 Clemson.

Norman is starting as a result of a single-game suspension for sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, who admitted to campus police this spring that he had smoked marijuana.

"Connor really understands the system well," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "He understands what's going on in the back end, and he understands the checks that we make against certain looks. He has the ability to communicate it to guys that don't know it as well, and that's huge.

"Christian Robinson was that kind of guy for us at linebacker during his career. He added a lot of value to our defense just from a knowledge standpoint, and that's where Connor is right now."

Norman was placed on scholarship before last season and started against Buffalo and Missouri, when former safety Bacarri Rambo was suspended the first four games and former cornerback/safety Sanders Commings the first two. The Bulldogs wound up winning each of those games by more than 20 points, with Norman collecting 10 of the 18 tackles he had last season.

Nobody is expecting a 20-point game Saturday night in Death Valley, and none of Georgia's teammates are expecting Norman to struggle.

"Connor never really takes a play off," sophomore outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. "I remember last season when somebody on a kickoff kneed him in the back. He got up and went straight to defense and played the next two or three series. He's just a guy who always works hard, always studies and always tries to help somebody else understand the defense."

Said junior receiver Malcolm Mitchell: "They haven't seem him play enough, and what people don't understand, they don't feel comfortable with. Hopefully he proves it Saturday. I'm pretty sure he's been waiting his whole life for something like this."

Norman and junior cornerback Damian Swann, the lone returning starter in the secondary, could be joined in the starting lineup by freshman free safety Tray Matthews and freshman cornerback Brendan Langley. Matthews was a top-100 national prospect this past winter who enrolled early and nailed down a starting spot in spring practice.

The knowledge Norman provides could help the athletic Matthews get through a potentially difficult debut considering Clemson's high-powered attack, at least that's how the more recognized No. 11 sees it.

"Connor is going to do a great job," Murray said. "He knows the playbook better than anyone else on the defense. He has stepped up not only as a playmaker but as a leader of that defense and getting guys ready to go."

Murray admitted he's never been mistaken for Norman on Dawg Walks but that he's honored to share his number with someone like him. The similarities don't end with the jerseys.

"Connor is one of those guys we can always count on, because he's always going to know the system," Swann said. "I kind of look at him as the Aaron Murray of our defense."

Odds and ends

The Bulldogs worked out with crowd noise Wednesday for 90 minutes. ... Richt said Matthews has not gone full speed much this week to test his sore hamstring. ... Richt on what was different about this year's preseason: "It was so mild."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.