The SEC media have anointed Mark Richt’s 2013 Bulldogs as the favorite to threepeat in the East, Georgia is likely to be a Top 10 team in most national polls and Mike Bobo’s offense is expected to be among the most productive in the country, but as preseason camp gets under way at the Woodruff Practice Fields in Athens, an awful lot of question marks still hang over this team.
Not the least among them is the almost total rebuilding job on defense necessitated by graduation and players leaving early for the NFL. As a friend put it back at the end of last season, this year Todd Grantham is really going to have to earn those big bucks. Last year, he came into the season with what was supposed to be one of the nation’s top defenses, loaded with talent worthy of playing on Sunday, and yet the defensive Dawgs proved decidedly ordinary. What can he do this year with a roster that’s loaded with talent but extremely short on experience?
Meanwhile, Georgia fans hope the sort of read-too-many-clippings complacency that seemed to affect last year’s defense doesn’t infect the explosive offense that returns all but one starter from last year’s record-setting bunch.
One thing college football fans always can do is fret, and having talked Georgia football pretty much nonstop this summer, here are some of the most important questions that the Bulldog Nation hopes to see answers to before the Dogs and Tigers line it up in Clemson on Aug. 31:
Who will wind up being the starters on the defensive line and how quickly will the secondary come along?
As Chris Wilson takes over from Rodney Garner coaching the DL, Georgia won’t be as big up front as last year but will have more depth, which sounds like a great idea if you remember the defensive front wearing down against Bama’s running game in the second half of the SEC Championship Game. Mike Thornton, who might barely reach the 300-pound mark, starts out the preseason as the presumed starter at the important nose guard position, but some larger players, including Chris Mayes and John Atkins, could press him for playing time, and Grantham has indicated defensive ends Toby Johnson and Johnathan Taylor could wind up playing some nose.
Meanwhile, Georgia looks in pretty good shape at linebacker, where Jordan Jenkins is expected to take up the playmaker’s banner from the departed Jarvis Jones, but the secondary is wide open, particularly with designated safety/nickel “star” back Josh Harvey Clemons suspended for the first game. The sole returnee, Damian Swann, has one cornerback position locked down, and sophomore Sheldon Dawson looks like the leading contender at the other corner with Reggie Wilkerson out for the season with an injury, while hard-hitting Tray Matthews is likely to be the free safety. The experienced Connor Norman, Devin Bowman and Corey Moore also will be in the mix, especially with Harvey-Clemons out, as will newcomers Quincy Mauger, Shaq Fluker, Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins. Special teams ace Blake Sailors also could be a factor.
Whoever is out on the field, this group will get a real baptism by fire from Clemson’s Tajh Boyd.
How will all this shuffling of the veteran offensive line shake out?
Despite all five starters from last season returning on the OL, generally, it’s considered that only center David Andrews and right guard Chris Burnette have starting spots guaranteed. Will highly touted John Theus remain behind Xzavier Ward at right tackle, as he was at the end of spring, or will he end up at left tackle? Where will Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee settle? Will Mark Beard crack the starting lineup? And what about Kolton Houston, once a presumed starter before getting stalled in NCAA pergatory? Now that he’s back, he definitely could push for playing time.
Hopefully Will Friend will figure out his best five pretty quickly, as the OL is the one element of Georgia’s high-powered offense that looked a bit shaky at times last season.
Will Georgia improve its spotty special teams play? Who will start out the season at placekicker while Marshall Morgan is suspended, and who will the kick returners be? Will the Dogs even seriously try to return punts?
Former kicker Blair Walsh thinks backup punter Adam Erickson is the answer to spell Morgan, but walk-ons Patrick Beless and Thomas Pritchard probably will get a look in preseason, too. All three made field goals in the G-Day game. As for the other end of the kicking game, fans are hoping maybe Todd Gurley will get more chances to return kickoffs, like at the start of last season. And will Malcolm Mitchell settle down at punt returner or will the coaches stick with Rhett McGowan, who makes better decisions, even if mostly that means a fair catch. Who else could get a shot at returning kicks? Justin Scott-Wesley? Swann?
Who will wind up as Georgia’s third tailback?
The tandem of Gurley and Keith Marshall will get the bulk of the carries, but past experience has proved the need for a reliable third option at tailback in the SEC wars. J.J. Green played there in the spring, but he’s a little undersized and might be more effective at flanker. Freshmen Brendan Douglas and A.J. Turman are bigger and could wind up battling for the spot.
How quickly will receiver Michael Bennett get back to his old form?
The Dogs are pretty stacked at receiver this year, what with Mitchell, Chris Conley and Rantavious Wooten all back, but injuries have a way of thinning that group out pretty quickly. Bennett was the go-to guy last year before getting hurt, and if he’s able to open the season at full speed it’ll be a big plus for Aaron Murray and company. Transfer Jonathan Rumph, who turned heads on G-Day, could get a shot here, too.
If Georgia’s coaching staff answers these questions quickly and satisfactorily, 2013 could indeed wind up being a special season for the Dawgs.
What else are you going to be watching during preseason camp?
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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg