ATHENS, Ga. - Georgia sophomore cornerback J.J. Green was eager for his first defensive start last weekend against visiting Tennessee.
After the Bulldogs surrendered a 264-yard, three-touchdown passing performance by Volunteers quarterback Justin Worley, who played only three quarters, Green was eager to defend the secondary.
"Everybody is going to go off this one game, just like they did when we beat Clemson," Green said following the 35-32 victory over the Vols. "They thought we were the best team in the country. We don't pay any attention to it. We go week by week, and we know what we've got to do.
"We've improved a lot since the spring, and we've improved a lot since the first game. When you're in that first game, you don't really know what's going on until after you watch the film. The more film you watch, the more you've got to do to correct it, and that's what we're doing."
Georgia's biggest preseason defensive concern remains through a 3-1 start entering Saturday's game against Vanderbilt, which will be starting true freshman Wade Freebeck at quarterback. The 1-4 Commodores are just 115th nationally in passing offense at 148.4 yards per game, so Saturday is very much a growth opportunity for Georgia's secondary.
The Bulldogs are allowing 231.8 passing yards a game, which is slightly worse than last season's 227.4-yard average. Georgia's starting secondary last week included seniors Damian Swann and Corey Moore but also contained true freshman Dominick Sanders, walk-on Aaron Davis and Green, who this time last year briefly became the program's starting tailback.
"We're definitely getting better," Georgia coach Mark Richt said this week. "We're communicating better. We're getting closer to making plays, and we're breaking some balls up. I think at one time we were not getting close to balls that we should have broken up, and we're probably breaking up some balls now that we probably should pick.
"So we're getting closer to those types of things, but I do think we're playing better and communicating better. How good will we get before it's over this season? I don't know, but I think we're improving steadily, and that's a good thing."
Further improvement likely will be needed if Georgia is to obtain a third SEC East title in four years.
In Georgia's 38-35 loss at South Carolina on Sept. 13, quarterback Dylan Thompson set the tone with a 19-of-26, 240-yard, three-touchdown first half to stake the Gamecocks to a 24-13 lead. Last weekend, Worley returned from injury with less than 10 minutes remaining and led the Vols on two touchdown drives in which he went 7-of-9 for 111 yards.
"I think we've been playing OK," Swann said. "We're not getting enough hands on balls like we should, but we're not really giving up as many big plays as we normally would. Tennessee didn't really throw any balls over our head.
"They threw a couple of position routes that anybody could complete, but we're going to get better."
The Bulldogs are vastly improved so far in terms of reducing disastrous plays, which became commonplace late last season with Auburn's 73-yard, fourth-down touchdown heave and Nebraska's 99-yard scoring connection in the Gator Bowl. Georgia's longest pass play allowed this season was a 38-yarder against Clemson.
In its last three games, Georgia's longest pass allowed has been 31 yards.
"We're definitely getting better," said Davis, who started last week at free safety. "We're giving effort and playing hard and playing physical, and as long as we continue to do that, I think we'll be able to get to where we can wear out the opponent."
Georgia freshman defensive back Rico Johnson was medically disqualified from the team Thursday.
According to an announcement by Richt, the 5-foot-11, 175-pounder from Swainsboro, Ga., experienced some neurological symptoms during Wednesday's practice, and a medical evaluation discovered a neurological condition.
"I'm thankful we caught this condition when we did," Richt said. "Now we can help Rico transition to life after football. He will stay on scholarship through his graduation."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.