ATHENS, Ga. — The most high-profile replacement on Georgia’s defense says that Sanders Commings has nothing to worry about.
Converted receiver Malcolm Mitchell insists he’s not out to steal Commings’ starting cornerback job.
“I expect Sanders to come back and play his spot like he’s been playing for a couple of years,” Mitchell said Thursday before the Bulldogs began their first official preseason practice. “I’m stepping in to help. If the coaches feel they want me to stay there, I’ll stay there.”
Commings, a senior from Westside High School, will miss the first two games against Buffalo and Missouri stemming from an off-season arrest on a domestic violence charge. Players serving suspensions aren’t allowed to talk to the media until they are cleared to play.
But his roommate Shawn Williams – the only member of the senior-laden starting secondary not potentially suspended to start the season – says Commings is chomping at the bit to get back and restore his place in Georgia’s defense.
“He doesn’t speak too much about it,” Williams said. “I think he’s more anxious because he feels like he has something to prove. He’s one of those guys that’s under the radar, not like (Louisiana State University’s acclaimed 2011 corners) Morris Claiborne or Tyrann Mathieu. He can be that guy but he’s really underrated right now. He’s going to come out with a chip on his shoulder and something to prove.”
Until then, Commings is busy practicing and helping Mitchell get prepared as his understudy.
“He’s a lot of help,” Mitchell said. “Teaching me everything he knows.”
Mitchell was Georgia’s second leading receiver last season, with 45 receptions for 665 yards. But with in-house punishments inflicting damage to the secondary corps (corner Branden Smith and free safety Bacarri Rambo are also facing potential suspensions for reportedly testing positive for marijuana), Mitchell has been called to reprise a defensive role he hasn’t played since high school.
While he never entertained playing both ways when he signed with Georgia, Mitchell is now enjoying the idea.
“I never lost the love for it,” Mitchell said of a position he hadn’t played since 2010 at Valdosta. “When I went out against our receivers it brought back some memories and competitiveness.”
He’s impressed his teammates with how quickly he can pick things up and what he brings to the secondary.
“He’s big, physical and has the body type,” said Williams of Mitchell. “And he’s really fast so he can gamble more because he has the catch-up speed in case someone gets by him.”
Mitchell’s athletic gifts and two-way potential have drawn comparisons to
former Bulldog great Champ Bailey, who started at corner and receiver as a junior before getting drafted.
A more appropriate comparison could be to recently departed defensive back Brandon Boykin, who dabbled as a big-play offensive weapon last season while playing predominantly at corner and return specialist. Georgia coach Mark Richt would like to see Mitchell’s two-way role increase as the season goes on and the defensive depth returns.
“I think Malcolm is going to spend most of his time on defense early on,” Richt said. “As the season wears on he’ll see more offense. He probably will play a little less defense when everybody comes back. When the weather cools, he may be able to play 10 to 20 more plays.”
If Mitchell has his druthers, he’d never leave the field.
“If I could go 50/50, that would be a dream come true,” he said. “(Richt’s plan is) a lot smarter decision than what I’ll say. I’d say just throw me out there and I’ll do every play if you want me to. But he’s the head coach so he knows the best decision to be made.”
What Georgia needs is some sound defensive contributions from everyone to avoid falling into the same hole as a year ago. Injuries and suspensions conspired to keep the Bulldogs defense in various degrees of readiness.
When at full strength, however, the Bulldogs were as good defensively as any team in the nation, including BCS finalists LSU and Alabama.
“We had 11 different lineups on defense in 14 games,” linebacker Christian Robinson said. “That’s people stepping up and making plays when we need them to and I think that will continue this season.”
Mitchell hopes to be part of the stopgap solution, but he’s not the final answer.
“Of course they’ll be missed, but I think we’ll make it,” he said of the short-handed start. “You’ll see what those players who are being missed bring to the entire team.”
Georgia, ranked preseason No. 6 in the coaches’ poll, hopes it doesn’t miss Commings and company too much before it’s too late.