Following the conclusion of his sophomore season in 2012, Georgia cornerback Damian Swann looked to be a budding superstar. With two interceptions of Nebraska quarterback Taylor Martinez in the Capital One Bowl, Swann put the finishing touches on what most concluded was a very solid season.
His four-interception season was supported by eight pass deflections and 53 tackles. Had Swann been draft eligible, he looked to be a sure fire early-round selection — possibly even a first-rounder once the draft process played itself out.
But in what turned out to be a perplexing year for both Swann and the Bulldogs as a whole, a disastrous junior campaign had many thinking (out loud, of course) Swann could be the worst player in Georgia's secondary.
In his defense, the entire unit appeared to suffer from the over-complexities of now former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham's multiple, ultra-aggressive scheme (gone to Louisville). But on the other hand, Swann was consistently beat for explosive plays, missed routine tackles, and was caught out of place in many area-based coverages.
Being an upperclassmen only compounded the situation. Fans and pundits alike expected a lot from Georgia in general; Swann's decline in effectiveness mirrored Georgia's season.
But with a less-complicated approach on defense and one of the best defensive back coaches in the country in tow, both Georgia and Swann are poised to bounce back in a major way this season.
The untapped talents
Coming out of high school it was clear to anyone who evaluated his talents that Swann had star potential. Despite being listed at 5'11 and 175 pounds, Swann had the perfect frame for a defensive back, mostly due to his long arms. He had fluid hips and quick feet. His leaping ability was through the roof, and he had safety-like talent when it came to tackling.
I saw him play a lot of free safety at Grady High School, and thought the position would better suit him, especially once his frame completely filled out. That's not a knock on his corner aptitude; it's merely giving kudos to the type of range and ball skills he had as a back-half defender. Being a former safety myself -- albeit at the semi-professional level -- I can spot a safety from a mile away.
Grantham undoubtedly felt similarly. You can tell by how Swann was deployed. Regardless of the position, Swann has all the necessary tools to dominate pass-catchers at the collegiate level.
Here we see Swann in his familiar role in Georgia's nickel sub package, at the star position. Grantham loved to play Swann here, as it took advantage of his plethora of abilities. His duties included man coverage on slot receivers and tight ends, area coverage, blitzing (5.5 career tackles for loss), and controlling the run game in the flats.
Although he's in underneath zone in the above sequence, Swann still maintained discipline in his backpedal and kept his focus on the quarterback -- as area defense requires.
He sunk underneath the route, staying true to his responsibilities. This is harder than one might realize. Your first instinct is to always continue to run with the receiver, especially if you sense a familiar route combination like smash developing.
Also, Swann high-points the ball, making sure it doesn't get into his body. Swann is a natural hands catcher from his days as a receiver in high school. Even at his listed height -- which isn't short by any means -- he has a very linear build. He matches up well physically with taller receivers, and his leaping ability is off the charts.
Case in point. Swann's ups are on full display with this amazing, one-handed pick. He's definitely the kind of player who could benefit from being utilized in space, as he has great range and a keen understanding of area principles. But the majority of his time looks as if it will be spent on the outside (while moonlighting at the star and money positions) in new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt's defense.
The nickel spot in Pruitt's defense was last occupied by one of the most dynamic players in college football, the diminutive Lamarcus Joyner of Florida State. Being that the position is a mesh between an outside linebacker and an inside corner, the player must be able to influence the game behind the line of scrimmage.
Here Swann was sent on a blitz from the star position. Although he encountered the read-option play right at the point at which the quarterback gets to decide whether to keep or hand off, Swann was patient enough to let the back make his move and react from there.
Swann's inconsistencies in tackling usually stemmed from neither dropping his pad level nor wrapping up at the point of attack. He also has a habit of not implementing the nuances that come with being a sound tackler, from time to time.
One particular play comes to mind.
In the season opener against the Clemson Tigers, Swann was charged with the unenviable task of covering one of the best receivers in college football, Sammy Watkins. Playing off-man coverage while maintaining outside technique (lining up on the receiver's outside shoulder, funneling him back inside towards traffic), he found himself in a situation where Watkins had a two-way go.
The only problem was Watkins decided to go through him, instead of around him. Swann failed to get his head up during the collision and to stabilize his feet for the tackle. Seventy-seven yards later, Swann found himself a part of Watkins' rather thick highlight reel.
Swann has to make sure he concentrates on the little things so his innate gifts can shine through once again. He has an ace in the hole that will undoubtedly help with such.
Great new coach, but ...
Great new coach, but ...
The Pruitt effect
Coach Pruitt cut his teeth under the best defensive backs coach in the business, Alabama head coach Nick Saban, who's a stickler for details like none other. Pruitt is said to operate in the same vein, and the results have been apparent no matter where he's coaching.
Pruitt "was as good as anybody I've been with [coaching from] the press box in the National Football League and in college ball," said Sal Sunseri (per ESPN's David M. Hale), an assistant on that 2009 Alabama team who now works as Florida State's defensive ends coach. "He knows exactly how to put the guys in place and knew how to make adjustments. That's how we won."
So how can Pruitt improve Swann's game?
Pruitt may have a tough time relegating him exclusively to inside corner, due to the loss of starting cornerback Shaq Wiggins (transferred to Louisville). With the additional departures of talented safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews due to disciplinary problems, giving Swann a look at a safety spot might not be a bad idea. However, Georgia recruited well, most notably Shattle Fenteng (No. 1 JUCO cornerback, according to ESPN), so it won't be devoid of talent either way. And the pass rush should be ferocious with Leonard Floyd, Jordan Jenkins, and five-star freshman Lorenzo Carter leading the attack. Pruitt will make sure that Swann is provided with all the tools to succeed on an island when placed there.
Also, we rarely, if ever, saw Swann make use of his long arms in the bump-and-run technique. Most of his time was spent in off-man, using the bail technique (in which the corner shows press and retreats to zone prior to the snap) or in zone -- the latter of which he's most effective at.
You have to think that a lot of Swann's troubles could be corrected by having him re-route receivers through the bump-and-run process.
Here we see Swann providing too much cushion to one of the best receivers in the land, Alabama's Amari Cooper. Cooper eats up the provided cushion before Swann can properly get into his backpedal.
Swann also bites extremely hard on the potential of an in-breaking route. He also makes the cardinal mistake of running while looking back at the ball in the trail phase. He was better off digging his heels in the ground and trying to catch up.
Swann is an uber-talented defensive back who has the skills to play numerous positions. Pruitt will not only put him in spots to succeed, but he will also clean up the nuances that hamper his game. By playing Swann on the inside in sub packages, he will eliminate a lot of the down-field routes that he'd encounter on the island outside. He will also bring out the physicality in Swann's game, similar to another of his corners that had safety skills, former Bama corner Dre Kirkpatrick -- currently of the Cincinnati Bengals. Kirkpatrick once struggled with deeper routes, but excelled at the line of scrimmage, thus throwing off the timing of deeper routes and forcing throws elsewhere.
With a clearer role and a coaching upgrade, look for a bounceback season from Swann and the Georgia defense as a whole.