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.
“It’s time to go,” 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. “You’ve kind of got to kiss your family goodbye. Not goodbye, but you know it’s going to be a little bit different.”
Georgia is scheduled to practice for 10 consecutive days to open camp — with morning and afternoon practices on Tuesday and Aug. 10 — 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.
“They’re going to be evaluated pretty quickly because I think it’s critical to get into preparing for our first few opponents because we’re a little bit younger,” said Grantham, referring to a schedule that includes Clemson, South Carolina and LSU in the first month. “I 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’re going to do in the first few games, I think that will allow them to play better.”
Georgia may practice its first-team offense against its first-team defense this preseason, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. That’s something usually for the spring.
Georgia’s defense is inexperienced, but may be faster and deeper.
“We’re just a very, very lean football team,” Richt said. “We really don’t have any fat boys. There’s a couple of guys that need a little help, but not many. I think we’re very quick and very athletic.”
Georgia players are coming off what they say were well-attended summer workouts.
“It’s a thrill to see Aaron Murray come out and say, ‘Let’s go do this,’ and the whole team is down and ready to do it,” cornerback Sheldon Dawson said.
Georgia is the preseason pick of the media to again win the SEC East.
“I really think the guys have done as well as we could have hoped for to get to this point,” Richt said. “I’m just really pleased with the culture of this football team. I think it’s very healthy when it comes to work, when it comes to trust, when it comes to team. I think we’re in a really good place.”
Still, Richt said that “rolling into two-a-days, there’s still a lot of questions that have to be answered.”
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’s top young talents on the back end.
Cornerback Damian Swann is the leader and may be called on to help at the “star” 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.
“We have so many young people that I don’t know what it will look like,” Richt said of how the secondary will end up.
“Everybody’s got to go out there and act like you don’t have a starting spot,” 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.
“We’ll really mess with it the first third of training camp to see how those guys progress,” Grantham said. ”The big thing is to evaluate the players that we have coming in. … We obviously like the ability of those players. They just haven’t done it yet in a game and until they do it in a game and a situation like that, it’s going to be a question mark.”
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’t saying. He wants Clemson to not know for sure.
Whether it’s 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’s absence.
As promised, Richt will be more involved with the kickers and punters directly. He said he’ll watch their routines more and might even meet with them to watch practice videos.
“It’s just a little higher accountability for them and just letting them know that I care about what’s going on, and I’m trying to keep up with what’s going on,” Richt said.
How will the offensive line shake out?
All five starters are back on the offensive line, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be changes still there.
Xzavier Ward and Kolton Houston could crack the starting lineup.
“There’s some guys pushing for playing time and a starting position up front,” 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.
“He’ll help us win whether he wins a starting job or not,” Richt said. “He’s very athletic, he’s very smart and he’s just so happy to be one of the boys. The first time (offensive line coach Will) Friend … starts chewing him out, I think he’s going to have the biggest smile on his face that he ever saw.”
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’t seem fazed.
“I’m just trying to go into camp trying to get better every day,” Theus said. “That’s my only goal at this point.”
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.
“Nobody’s really shown up to say, ‘Hey, this guy is going to be a guy that won’t need to be a part of a rotation,’” Grantham said. “I think their strength is that there’s more of them.”
Georgia won’t 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 “change of pace” 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.
“You have to have the flexibility up front to move guys around based upon the offense you’re facing and how guys are playing,” 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.
“I do like we’ve got some bigger guys in Douglas and Turman,” Bobo said, “We’ve 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.”
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.