ATHENS – The Georgia Bulldogs will take their first steps toward becoming the team they will be in 2012 when 105 players jog onto Woodruff Practice Fields on Thursday for the first of 28 practices.
Despite a tumultuous offseason, there is an underlying optimism. The Bulldogs, 10-4 last season, are favored to repeat as SEC Eastern Division champions largely because they return 15 of the top 17 tacklers from a top-5, nationally-ranked defense and an All-SEC quarterback in Aaron Murray.
But for Georgia to realize its goal of returning to the SEC Championship game — and winning it this time — several issues have to be resolved during preseason camp. Here are the top five priorities going in:
1. IDENTIFY OFFENSIVE LINE
Nothing is more crucial to the Bulldogs’ success this season than being able piece together a competitive offensive line. It’s hard enough to replace three starters that totaled 19 feet, 2 inches in height and 983 pounds of mass and will all play in the NFL this season. But then you add the uncertainty surrounding the lineup and therein lay the possibility of disaster.
Heading into Tuesday night’s team meeting, nobody was sure whether Kolton Houston was going to be available this season or not. That’s a big deal considering the Bulldogs determined in the spring he is their best option at right tackle. Houston was suspended for a year by the NCAA for violating one of their policies and must be cleared by the college football’s governing body for his eligibility to be restored.
Richt’s last word on the subject was, “I wish I had an answer for that. I still don’t have an answer on whether he’ll be eligible.”
With Houston, the Bulldogs appear set at right tackle and could possibly move an experienced player to center. Without Houston, undersized and rarely-used sophomore David Andrews will have to get the job done at center and true freshman John Theus may be the next best option at right tackle. Whatever combination Georgia goes with it needs to get established quickly and because continuity is often key to consistent offensive line play.
“They’re a little bit of a focal point as far as needing to prove they can do it,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “In offensive line play, just coordinating five guys to hit the right guy is big. But these guys are very sharp. If we can get five guys that will fight like mad and put the right hat on every guy we can function pretty well; if you have the right skill people at quarterback, which we do.”
2. ESTABLISH CHEMISTRY
Perhaps number 1-A as far priorities preseason camp is establishing good team chemistry and positive momentum for the season. The Bulldogs encountered a tumultuous offseason that saw players arrested, dismissed or suspended. Some transferred and some left and came back. As a result, the program has been questioned about the character of the players it recruits.
Such scrutiny can tear teams apart or it forge them together in an unbreakable bond. Obviously Georgia players believe the latter will be the case.
“As a team, we’re going to lose individuals,” All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones said. “But we’ve got to stay focused on what we have. We’ve got some leaders on this team, myself, Abry [Jones], Aaron [Murray], T.K. [Tavarres King]. All of us have stood up and had words. We told the guys, ‘y’all know what we have here; y’all know why we came back; y’all know what the goal is.’ We have one of the best [coaching] staffs in the nation and we’ve got the whole Bulldog Nation behind us. So the more we stick together and the more things we do right, the more we can pave our way to where we want to go.”
3. RESOLVE SECONDARY SITUATION
With the exception of announcing a two-game suspension for cornerback Sanders Commings, who pleaded guilty in a misdemeanor domestic violence case this past February, Georgia has never acknowledged reportedly-imminent suspensions for three other defensive starters. Two of those players – All-America free safety Bacarri Rambo and senior cornerback Branden Smith – also play in the defensive backfield.
Based on personnel moves made in the spring, the Bulldogs clearly expect something to come down. They moved Malcolm Mitchell, arguably their most explosive wide receiver, over to cornerback. And while he’s expected to eventually play both sides of the ball, he’ll be concentrating on defense in camp. That’s a risky proposition that has to work for Georgia to get past pass-happy Missouri in Game 2.
“The main reason for [moving Mitchell to defense full time] is we want him to be able to function on any given down, distance or situation,” Richt said. “I’m not saying he’s going to play every single down on defense. I don’t know if anybody plays every down any more. But I want him to be able to understand our scheme will enough where coach [Todd] Grantham will have every opportunity to do whatever what he might want to do or call in the game. So we’re getting him ready to play as much defense as he can.”
Less discussed and just as critical is having little-used sophomores Corey Moore and Connor Norman come through at safety.
4. DETERMINE PECKING ORDER IN BACKFIELD
Of course, the most publicized departure for Georgia in the offseason was the dismissal of tailback Isaiah Crowell after his summer arrest on weapons charges. All the talk of losing a bad apple aside, the fact is the Bulldogs lost their most talented and proven rushing threat. In fact, coupled with the transfer of rising senior Carlton Thomas, Georgia lost 1,221 yards rushing and 7 touchdowns off last year’s team.
The Bulldogs have somewhat of a known commodity in redshirt sophomore Ken Malcome, who enters camp as the No. 1 tailbacl. But to address depth concerns, they will again depend on Richard Samuel to ride to the rescue. The 6-foot-2, 243-pound senior was their best option at fullback before Crowell left. Now he’ll move back to tailback fulltime and, early on at least, be counted on as the dependable back who knows every assignment and can be on the field in any situation.
Meanwhile, Georgia inked a player in Keith Marshall that many recruiting services rated the No. 1 tailback prospect in America. The Bulldogs signed four-star back Todd Gurley, too. But since Marshall was able to enroll early and participate in spring practice, he stands as the most likely newcomer to be able to step in and contribute early. Georgia needs him to come through.
“Keith is the only one I could say how ready I think he’ll be,” Richt said. “He certainly has been diligent about learning what to do and that’s more than half the battle. He’s lived through a spring now, even though he had a hamstring injury. So he’s got a pretty good idea of what’s coming.”
That doesn’t even address the situation at fullback. Walk-on Merritt Hall enters camp atop the depth chart but everyone is eager to get a look at freshman Quayvon Hicks in action. He reportedly is a “rock-solid” physical specimen who now carries 265 pounds on his 6-foot-2 frame.
5. DEVELOP THE KICKING GAME
Georgia was supposed to have one of the most formidable kicking games in the nation this past season with punter Drew Butler and place-kicker Blair Walsh at the helm. Though it didn’t actually materialize that way, both players were snapped up by NFL teams and are gone now.
The Bulldogs will learn their true worth quickly as they break in freshmen at those respective positions. Punter Collin Barber of Cartersville and place-kicker Marshall Morgan were both rated among the best in the nation in high school. But being able to come through before 90,000 fans and national-television cameras as NFL wannabes bear down at full speed is a proposition nobody can prepare them for until they go through it
“It’ll be interesting,” Richt said. “I’m sure they will be nervous. Kickers and punters, maybe more than any other position, the better fundamentals they have and the more reps they can accumulate will help them. . . . They have powerful legs. There’s no question in my mind they have all the tools to get it done. But the first time you do anything I’m sure they’ll be nervous. I’m sure they’ll be nervous in practice. Certainly they’ll be nervous in ballgames if in fact they win the jobs. They have a good chance.”
None of the walk-on candidates distinguished themselves in the spring, so the Bulldogs need the newbies to come through.