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August 27, 2006

Carrying on UGA's safety tradition

Over the last three years, Sanford Stadium has been filled with the sounds of popping hits delivered by Georgia's safeties that have quickly been followed by collective cringes from many Bulldogs fans seeing the physical licks laid by the likes of Greg Blue, Thomas Davis and even Sean Jones.

None of those players are with the Bulldogs any more with each of the three on respective NFL teams. Instead, Georgia has a different breed of safeties trying to keep up the tradition of strong play at safety for the Bulldogs.

While Blue, Davis and Jones were all at least six-foot-one inches tall and weighed no less than 212 pounds, Tra Battle is 5-foot-11 and weighs 176 pounds with Johnson being 6-foot-1 and weighing 192 pounds.

"All I'm going to be is Kelin Johnson, that's how I feel," said Georgia free safety Kelin Johnson. "Of course I want to be big names like those guys were. But If I just take care of myself and my team's winning and we win the SEC Championship again, I did my job."

Oh and by the way, Blue, Davis and Jones were each named All-Americans during their careers, so all Georgia's two starting safeties, Battle and Johnson have to do to carry the torch is play well enough to earn All-American accolades.

"You've had guys who've done it before you for years and years in the system," said Georgia senior rover Battle. "They set the precedent. Really all you have to do is match that."

Georgia's success at safety isn't by coincidence. In a system kick-started in Athens by Brian VanGorder and current defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, who also coaches the Bulldog secondary, safeties have more than ample opportunities to make plays, opening to door for Johnson, Battle or their top back-ups, sophomore C.J. Byrd and redshirt freshman Donovan Baldwin to apply big licks to opposing running backs and receivers.

"That's why I lot of safeties come to this school. That's why Greg Blue came, that's why Thomas Davis came," Johnson said. "It's a safety system."

It's also why Georgia was able to lure Byrd, a product of North Augusta, S.C., from across the Savannah River into Georgia.

"Our defense is based around the safety, so that's a good reason to come here," Byrd said. "That's why I came here. I want to keep the tradition going."

Behind Battle and Johnson on the depth chart is Byrd. He saw mostly special teams duty last fall and sputtered to start spring practice before picking up the pace in spring camp and carrying the effort over into preseason camp. Now, he's the top option to play either safety position even though free safety behind Johnson is a more likely option.

"Just coming out of this fall, I wanted to come out and impress the coaches," Byrd said. "They got a bad picture of me in the spring."

Battle credits Byrd having another year in Georgia's defensive system as a reason for the learning curve going down for him over the past few weeks.

"In this defense, the more reps you get and more practice time you get, the more time you have in practice, the more you are going to fit into the defense and begin to pick up on different things and different strategies," Battle said. "I think what C.J. is doing is that he's just maturing as a player in the secondary."

Behind Byrd, Baldwin is the next option with the Bulldogs' pair of freshman safeties, Reshad Jones and Quintin Banks being co-No. 5 on the depth chart right now. Martinez expects to decide on whether or not to redshirt the freshmen by about the fourth game of the season.

"I'm sure we can win with any safety we put out there," Johnson said.



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