ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia played four freshmen in the secondary during last Saturday's 44-41 win over LSU.
Cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins and safety Tray Matthews were often on the field together trying to combat Tigers quarterback Zach Mettenberger and his talented wideouts. The aerial competition took place before a sold out Sanford Stadium and a national audience on CBS.
"A lot of freshmen don't go to big colleges like this and actually play, especially on defense," Wiggins said.
Georgia coaches knew they would have a lot of new faces in the secondary following the departures of seniors Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo, Branden Smith and Shawn Williams from last year's team. Accompanying such youth would be the expected youthful mistakes, and the Bulldogs have had their share.
The Bulldogs rank last in the SEC in scoring defense, third-down conversion defense and pass efficiency defense entering Saturday's game at Tennessee, and they may be without Matthews, who tweaked his hamstring during Tuesday's practice.
"We're one third of the way through the season," secondary coach Scott Lakatos said, "and no matter what you do, they're new guys who have a lot to learn and are working their tails off."
Georgia is allowing 277.0 passing yards a game, but three significant factors contributing to that are Mettenberger, Clemson's Tajh Boyd and South Carolina's Connor Shaw. Those could be the three best quarterbacks the Bulldogs will face on their 12-game schedule, but Lakatos isn't using that as an excuse.
Head coach Mark Richt said the new targeting rule has been a problem for his secondary, especially against LSU.
"There were two plays, quite frankly, where two young safeties weren't sure what to do at the moment of truth," Richt said. "I think we were probably thinking too much. I think we over-coached the targeting stuff. I said that you're allowed to hit them as hard as you want, just don't hit them in the head and don't launch at them. Hopefully that will help."
The biggest issue according to Georgia's defenders this week is that the secondary isn't always getting the signals before each snap from inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera.
"We just need to look at each other before the play is called," Wiggins said. "With most of the calls we get, we have simple little signals that we call, but just looking at the sideline from the other side of the field is kind of hard because things are moving so fast. Offenses run different types of tempo, and it's just something we have to pay close attention to."
Said Herrera: "Nobody really knows it that well except for me and [inside linebacker] Ramik [Wilson] and some of the people who have been here. Those guys who haven't played that much probably don't know them, and we get new signals every week, so that's a problem, too."
When told that several of his players expressed concerns over the signaling, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said, "That's bull. Everybody knows the signals. They just need to get them. I don't know who was saying that, but that's part of youth, too. They need to take it on themselves to get the call."
Lakatos said the secondary works on communication constantly and that the Bulldogs always practice as if they won't be able to hear each other talk. The No. 6 Bulldogs are expecting to play before more than 100,000 fans inside Neyland Stadium, though it won't be as loud when Georgia's defense is on the field.
"We have a complex defense, and guys are learning what to do on certain calls," safety Connor Norman said. "That's something that we're obviously working on, getting guys more familiar with the signals. Amarlo is the signal caller for us, but teams move so fast that you can't always relay the signals."
Against LSU, the Bulldogs allowed the Tigers to convert 10 of 15 third-down opportunities. On third-down pass attempts, Mettenberger went 7-of-10 for 168 yards and three touchdowns.
Mettenberger converted a third-and-22 midway through the fourth quarter with a 25-yard completion and later had a second-and-17 pass that gained 18.
"They definitely won the third-down ratio last weekend, and that's definitely something that really eats at you," outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins said. "You know you can look better than that, and that's just one of those things we've been really focused on. We have got to get off the field on third down if we want to be a great SEC defense, because when you get to Atlanta, the better defense is going to win that game."
For now, Georgia's coaches just want a defense that looks improved and more unified in Knoxville than it did last week.
"We still have to iron some things out on the perimeter," Richt said, "but that's just learning -- knowing exactly what we want done and how we want it done."
Sophomore tailback Todd Gurley missed his third straight practice Wednesday. Richt continues to list Gurley as day-to-day.
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.