Georgia became the first Southeastern Conference team to report for preseason camp on Tuesday and joins Mississippi State, Missouri and Vanderbilt today as the first to get August practices underway.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs time to go,‚Äù said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who enters his 13th season coming off back-to-back trips to the SEC title game and a 12-2 record last year. ‚ÄúYou‚Äôve kind of got to kiss your family goodbye. Not goodbye, but you know it‚Äôs going to be a little bit different.‚Äù
Georgia is scheduled to practice for 10 consecutive days to open camp ‚Äî with morning and afternoon practices on Tuesday and Aug. 10 ‚Äî and 27 times total leading up to the season opener Aug. 31 at Clemson.
Quarterback Aaron Murray and tailback Todd Gurley lead an offense hoping to pick up where it left off last season when it set program scoring records.
Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, who had seven players go in the NFL draft off his unit, will have 11 more newcomers added to the mix this preseason to go along with those who enrolled early.
‚ÄúThey‚Äôre going to be evaluated pretty quickly because I think it‚Äôs critical to get into preparing for our first few opponents because we‚Äôre a little bit younger,‚Äù said Grantham, referring to a schedule that includes Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in the first month. ‚ÄúI think from what I see with our young team is we get better the more we play. I think in the spring, the more we practiced the better we got. I think if we can give them a sense of what we‚Äôre going to do in the first few games, I think that will allow them to play better.‚Äù
Georgia may practice its first-team offense against its first-team defense this preseason, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. That‚Äôs something usually for the spring.
Georgia‚Äôs defense is inexperienced, but may be faster and deeper.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôre just a very, very lean football team,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúWe really don‚Äôt have any fat boys. There‚Äôs a couple of guys that need a little help, but not many. I think we‚Äôre very quick and very athletic.‚Äù
Georgia players are coming off what they say were well-attended summer workouts.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs a thrill to see Aaron Murray come out and say, ‚ÄòLet‚Äôs go do this,‚Äô and the whole team is down and ready to do it,‚Äù cornerback Sheldon Dawson said.
Georgia is the preseason pick of the media to again win the SEC East.
‚ÄúI really think the guys have done as well as we could have hoped for to get to this point,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm just really pleased with the culture of this football team. I think it‚Äôs very healthy when it comes to work, when it comes to trust, when it comes to team. I think we‚Äôre in a really good place.‚Äù
Still, Richt said that ‚Äúrolling into two-a-days, there‚Äôs still a lot of questions that have to be answered.‚Äù
Here are five:
What will the secondary look like?
A unit that was hit hard by NFL departures got a boost this spring with the quick emergence of freshman Tray Matthews to solidify the starting free safety position. Matthews showed coaches he could tackle in space, make big hits and displayed ball skills needed.
The one-game suspension of strong safety/nickel back Josh Harvey-Clemons takes away one of the team‚Äôs top young talents on the back end.
Cornerback Damian Swann is the leader and may be called on to help at the ‚Äústar‚Äù spot against Clemson without Harvey-Clemons. Dawson has the edge for the other corner spot.
Corey Moore, Connor Norman and junior college transfer Shaq Fluker will compete at strong safety.
‚ÄúWe have so many young people that I don‚Äôt know what it will look like,‚Äù Richt said of how the secondary will end up.
‚ÄúEverybody‚Äôs got to go out there and act like you don‚Äôt have a starting spot,‚Äù Moore said.
Georgia will look to freshmen cornerbacks Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins to be part of the rotation because early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson was lost for the season after suffering a knee injury during summer workouts.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôll really mess with it the first third of training camp to see how those guys progress,‚Äù Grantham said. ‚ÄùThe big thing is to evaluate the players that we have coming in. … We obviously like the ability of those players. They just haven‚Äôt done it yet in a game and until they do it in a game and a situation like that, it‚Äôs going to be a question mark.‚Äù
Who will be kicking at Clemson?
Sophomore Marshall Morgan could be sitting this one out under a yet as unannounced suspension for a boating under the influence arrest, but Richt isn‚Äôt saying. He wants Clemson to not know for sure.
Whether it‚Äôs Morgan, walk-ons Adam Erickson, Patrick Beless, Thomas Pritchard or even punter Collin Barber, Georgia will be throwing out someone in a pressure-packed environment on the road against a likely top 10 opponent. Morgan was 8 of 14 on field goals as a freshman.
Former Bulldogs kicker Blair Walsh has said he thinks Erickson is well-equipped for the job in Morgan‚Äôs absence.
As promised, Richt will be more involved with the kickers and punters directly. He said he‚Äôll watch their routines more and might even meet with them to watch practice videos.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs just a little higher accountability for them and just letting them know that I care about what‚Äôs going on, and I‚Äôm trying to keep up with what‚Äôs going on,‚Äù Richt said.
How will the offensive line shake out?
All five starters are back on the offensive line, but that doesn‚Äôt mean there can‚Äôt be changes still there.
Xzavier Ward and Kolton Houston could crack the starting lineup.
‚ÄúThere‚Äôs some guys pushing for playing time and a starting position up front,‚Äù Richt said.
The 6-foot-5, 280-pound Houston, reinstated by the NCAA last week after being ineligible for testing positive for a banned substance, will probably work at guard at least initially, but could line up at tackle as well.
‚ÄúHe‚Äôll help us win whether he wins a starting job or not,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs very athletic, he‚Äôs very smart and he‚Äôs just so happy to be one of the boys. The first time (offensive line coach Will) Friend … starts chewing him out, I think he‚Äôs going to have the biggest smile on his face that he ever saw.‚Äù
John Theus started every game at right tackle as a freshman, but coaches listed him behind Ward on the depth chart at the spot heading into preseason camp. Both will get first-team reps.
Theus didn‚Äôt seem fazed.
‚ÄúI‚Äôm just trying to go into camp trying to get better every day,‚Äù Theus said. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs my only goal at this point.‚Äù
Kenarious Gates, Mark Beard and Theus give coaches choices at left tackle.
Can quantity bring quality on the defensive line?
Georgia has more depth along the defensive line, with as many as 11 players in the mix for playing time.
‚ÄúNobody‚Äôs really shown up to say, ‚ÄòHey, this guy is going to be a guy that won‚Äôt need to be a part of a rotation,‚Äô‚Äù Grantham said. ‚ÄúI think their strength is that there‚Äôs more of them.‚Äù
Georgia won‚Äôt be as big in the middle when 300-pounder Mike Thornton mans the middle at nose guard. John Jenkins, who tipped the scales as much as 370 pounds last season, and 346-pound Kwame Geathers are gone.
Thornton is a ‚Äúchange of pace‚Äù guy, Grantham said who had a good spring.
Chris Mayes (6-4, 321) or defensive end John Taylor (6-4, 336) could eventually emerge as the answer there. Taylor has the size and stoutness, Grantham said, to be dominant inside but is athletic enough to play on the edge.
‚ÄúYou have to have the flexibility up front to move guys around based upon the offense you‚Äôre facing and how guys are playing,‚Äù Grantham sad.
Taylor could move inside if Sterling Bailey and Ray Drew continue to progress at defensive end early in the preseason. Another end, junior college transfer Toby Johnson, is athletic but has to absorb the system.
What other position battles are worth watching?
Georgia may have the best tailback duo in the country with Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, but it will be interesting to see who is No. 3 at the position. Freshmen Brendan Douglas (5-11, 202) and A.J. Turman (6-0, 198) could allow J.J. Green to be shifted to receiver.
‚ÄúI do like we‚Äôve got some bigger guys in Douglas and Turman,‚Äù Bobo said, ‚ÄúWe‚Äôve got to get those guys ready. Get them on special teams, get them playing, get them confidence. Treat them like we treated Gurley and Marshall last year.‚Äù
Quayvon Hicks has pushed ahead of Merritt Hall at fullback after Hall dealt with a turf toe injury this spring. Ramik Wilson enters preseason as a starter at inside linebacker alongside Amarlo Herrera, but freshman Reggie Carter, after a strong spring, could push Wilson. Bailey and Drew will continue their battle at defensive end.