ATHENS - On any defense like Georgia had last year, stocked with veterans, there are seldom-used rookies whom veterans and coaches keep saying, in so many words: Keep an eye on that guy next year.
At cornerback, Sheldon Dawson was that guy in 2012.
Now Dawson is going about making sure he remains that guy in 2013.
Damian Swann is set as the No. 1 cornerback, after starting the season there as a sophomore. The other starting spot is open, but Dawson, fresh off impressing in practice last year, became the favorite as soon as attention turned to next year.
But ask Dawson if he feels secure he'll be starting at Clemson, and he quickly answers "no." He knows he still has to fight off fellow veteran Devin Bowman, as well as early enrollees like Reggie Wilkerson, and incoming freshmen Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley, who arrive this summer.
"I know I'm gonna play against Clemson, but I never wanna look at it like, 'I'm gonna be the next starter,'" Dawson said. "Swann, he's a secure starter. But for me, I'm next in line, but anything can happen. If I show up one day at work and don't give it my all, and somebody else shows up, that's his job. Then if he doesn't show up the next day and I show up, it's my job (again). It's all about being consistent and being able to play fast, and just be at the right spot at the right times."
Dawson (listed at 5-foot-11 and 181 pounds) came to campus last year after being rated by some recruiting services as the top recruit out of Tennessee. He was rated the nation's No. 92 overall prospect by 247sports.com. After being committed to Memphis for awhile, SEC schools like Georgia and the Mississippi schools came calling, and Dawson decided on Georgia a week before signing day.
He didn't play much last year, thanks to all that depth at cornerback. He did play in 13 games, mostly on special teams, totaling 13 tackles. But in practice he did everything he could to back up his recruiting accolades, moving ahead of Bowman (who joined the team in 2011) on the depth chart.
"Even though I haven't been on campus a year, it's reality time, I'm a veteran. Today I found myself helping Reggie Wilkerson out a whole lot," Dawson said. "I'm still learning. But I still feel like I can help guys when they need help - and I know it - and I won't sit there and not say anything because (last year) I needed help, and there was a veteran there to help me."
"It's a year to rebuild. Every four years, it's going to be a time to rebuild," Dawson said. "So we don't look at it as we're gonna hold our heads down and we're gonna lose a lot of starters, and we're not gonna be good. We look at it as an opportunity."
Dawson is playing the field corner spot in camp, while Swann is the boundary corner.
"Swann, he knows every position on the field. You could put him at linemen and he'd be able to make calls and tell what the linemen do," Dawson said. "But for me, I played field (corner) all last year. So all I had to do was polish up and learn a few more terms and be able to roll with it. Now I'm rolling through it."
And that knowledge is vital to securing a starting spot, because defensive coordinator Todd Grantham values experience and knowledge of the system very, very highly.
"We've got new safeties, so if there's a safety on my side, I feel like I'll be able to call and tell certain coverage to him," Dawson said. "But it's a good feeling that we're out there together and we look good rebuilding. It's no downfall that we're rebuilding. We actually look good."