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Saturday February 6th, 2016 10:40AM

Even with stern test ahead, Georgia's young secondary believes in itself

By The Associated Press
ATHENS -- Connor Norman said Tuesday he understands if fans are nervous about No. 5 Georgia's secondary.

Georgia is listing two freshmen and Norman, a former walk-on, with junior Damian Swann as the starting defensive backs against No. 8 Clemson on Saturday night.

Georgia had seven NFL draft picks on its 2012 defense, leaving little returning experience. That makes for a scary opener for a mostly untested secondary against Clemson, which returns star quarterback Tajh Boyd and receiver Sammy Watkins.

Free safety Tray Matthews and cornerback Brendan Langley will start as freshmen.

Scary?

"I'm not surprised about that just because of all the great players we lost to the NFL," Norman said when asked about the perception of the secondary.

"I know people are looking at us, but we've been working hard just like everybody else and we're ready to prove ourselves."

Norman is a senior strong safety. The projected starter, Josh Harvey-Clemons, is suspended for the game for an unspecified violation of team rules.

Another candidate to fill in for Harvey-Clemons was junior Corey Moore, who has been held out of practice with a sprained knee. Coach Mark Richt said Tuesday he doesn't expect Moore to play against Clemson.

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney said Tuesday he's not buying the reports of Georgia's depleted defense.

"Don't buy the lie or feel sorry for Georgia," Swinney said. "They've got a lot of great players."

Georgia players agree with the Clemson coach. They also say no sympathy is necessary, because the defense will be fine.

Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray said he is "very confident" in the defense.

"Coach (Todd) Grantham has done a great job over the last few years of recruiting guys that fit his scheme," Murray said of the Bulldogs' defensive coordinator. "I think we have a lot of great players, just young guys that no one has seen or know about and guys who have made plays all summer long and all camp long and have gotten better every day.

"I'm looking for them to surprise a lot of people."

Swann, who started all 14 games last season, said he has recovered from a hip flexor and strained groin that forced him to miss some practice time. Injuries were a recurring problem in the secondary this month. Matthews missed time with shoulder and hamstring injuries.

Junior college transfer Shaquille Fluker, another strong safety, was slowed by a sprained back.

Georgia is listing freshmen Shaq Wiggins and Quincy Mauger as top backups at cornerback and free safety, respectively.

"They do have a lot of young guys out there, a lot of guys who haven't played in games," Boyd said before adding Georgia has "great players and great coaches."

Richt said he is "probably more curious than concerned" about the new starters on defense, including in the secondary.

"It's just going to be interesting to see how quickly these guys can get their feet under them and start playing with some confidence," Richt said. "I'm not saying they won't start out that way, but young people tend to be more apt to react to what happens early in the game. If things are going great, they feel great. If things aren't going well, they start feeling bad."

Norman began his career at Presbyterian College before walking on at Georgia. He was awarded a scholarship before the 2012 season. He started against Buffalo and Missouri to open last season when Georgia was without four suspended players.

Richt said Norman won over coaches with his ability to share his superior knowledge of the defense with other defensive backs on the field.

"Connor really understands the system well," 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."

NOTES: Murray said Tuesday he is experimenting with new contact lenses. He said he doesn't need the contacts in games. ... Richt said the pairing of senior quarterbacks Murray and Boyd "should be interesting, and if you're looking for a subplot, that's a pretty good one." ... Richt's son, Jon, began his career at Clemson before transferring to Mars Hill College. "It was a good experience for Jon," Richt said of his son's time at Clemson. "He got a chance to see what BCS football was about, and Clemson is a really fine program."
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