Mark Richt begins his 14th spring football practices as Georgia‚Äôs head coach today, but there‚Äôs a fresh-look for the Bulldogs with all the changes that have transpired since last season.
Fifth-year senior Hutson Mason enters his first spring as the starting quarterback after getting two starts already under his belt for an injured Aaron Murray at the end of last season.
The big story, of course, is on defense where new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, fresh off a national title at Florida State, leads an entirely new group of Bulldogs assistants.
Georgia gave up an average of 29 points per game last season and was 109th in the nation in turnovers gained.
‚ÄúI think all the guys are eager,‚Äù Pruitt said. ‚ÄúThey had a good offseason and now it‚Äôs the next step. We go out there and start practicing and see what kind of football players they are.‚Äù
The defensive players are looking to make a good impression.
‚ÄúCertainly our players, especially those on defense, know that every job is wide open and they‚Äôve got to prove to their position coach and coordinator that they should be the guy to be a starter, they should be the guy to earn playing time,‚Äù Richt said.
Georgia will still be missing top playmakers this spring in tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley as they continue to rehab from knee injuries.
Star tailback Todd Gurley isn‚Äôt expected to get a heavy workload or maybe do much at all this spring after an injury-filled sophomore season. His legs have bothered him during offseason workouts, he said.
‚ÄúWe‚Äôll play it by ear with however I feel,‚Äù Gurley said. ‚ÄúI‚Äôm pretty sure coaches will work with me.‚Äù
Senior center David Andrews liked what he‚Äôs seen so far from the team this offseason.
‚ÄúThrough mat drills, I‚Äôve seen this team have a lot of life, a lot of energy,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúYou love to see that, especially coming in the hardest time. February‚Äôs kind of the hardest month. There‚Äôs no game you‚Äôre preparing for in the future and everything seems so far away. To see everyone come to work every day and not get monotonous with it and try to attack it every day, it shows me it‚Äôs going to be a fun spring, a high-tempo spring. A lot of energy.‚Äù
Here are five spring storylines worth watching beyond Pruitt and the new defensive assistants between now and when practices wrap up on April 17:
EMERGENCE OF PLAYERS IN THE SECONDARY
Pruitt not only will be calling the shots for a Georgia defense that was exposed last season as it dealt with inexperience and youth, but he‚Äôll be hands on coaching the secondary, which was the biggest trouble spot during an 8-5 season.
‚ÄúI think our coaches are just wide open to figuring out who belongs where and who is first team and who‚Äôs not,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think anybody has any idea who is going to end up where.‚Äù
Damian Swann returns after a disappointing junior season. Also at cornerback are Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley, who started as freshmen, and Sheldon Dawson. Reggie Wilkerson could be a big factor after returning from a torn ACL.
Corey Moore, Tray Matthews, Quincy Mauger and Tramel Terry will fight for jobs at safety.
Mauger and Matthews were forced to start as freshmen at a back end depleted by attrition.
‚ÄúBeing 17, 18 year old coming in and playing in a grown man league, that‚Äôs kind of tough,‚Äù Swann said. ‚ÄúThem being pretty much forced to play in that, it was great for them. With the experience that they‚Äôve got, they‚Äôll be good (this) year.‚Äù
Georgia lost one of its most talented defensive players when safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed last month.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs going to be a big impact on us,‚Äù Swann said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs one of the top tacklers. He came through big for us in a few games, in the Georgia) Tech game and the Kentucky game, he had a couple of forced fumbles and fumble recoveries. We‚Äôre going to miss that big body standing back there who can come downhill and make a tackle, who can blitz off the edge and make a tackle and stay back and play in coverage. The way you‚Äôve got to look at it is it‚Äôs not our first rodeo with guys being released. I think when something like that happens it just gives other guys opportunities to step up and show why they were recruited here to play.‚Äù
THE OFFENSIVE LINE SHAKE OUT AFTER THE LOSS OF THREE SENIOR STARTERS
Junior John Theus will begin this spring as the starting left tackle and senior Kolton Houston will man right tackle. Georgia is set at center with Andrews.
Theus worked some at left tackle last spring, but started at right tackle last season.
‚ÄúJohn‚Äôs a very knowledgeable guy, John knows the offense very well,‚Äù Andrews said. ‚ÄúHe‚Äôs started as many years as I have. I think he can be a good athlete to play left.‚Äù
The most fierce competition could come at guard where Mark Beard, Watts Dantzler, Brandon Kublanow and Greg Pyke are competing for jobs.
‚ÄúSpring is going to be mismatched, people moving around,‚Äù Andrews said. ‚ÄúThat‚Äôs just how it is, that‚Äôs just how it always has been since I‚Äôve been here. It‚Äôs time to see where people can be the best fits, see who can help the team out the best way. If you want a position, you‚Äôve got to go out and take it.‚Äù
FAMILIAR FACES IN NEW PLACES.
With talented incoming tailbacks Sony Michel and Nick Chubb arriving this summer, J.J. Green will join the mix in the secondary as a cornerback. He was the team‚Äôs second-leading rusher last season when the Bulldogs lost Keith Marshall to a torn ACL.
‚ÄúHe can‚Äôt be the nice guy no more,‚Äù Swann said. ‚ÄúHe has to turn into a dog and be ready to tackle instead of being tackled. With him being the type of athlete he is, I think he should transition very well.‚Äù
Fullback Quayvon Hicks will line up at tight end to prepare him for an H-back type role in the fall. Tight end Jay Rome is still coming off foot surgery so redshirt freshman Jordan Davis will be the top tight end as spring begins.
Tramel Terry will get a longer look at safety after moving from wide receiver during bowl practices.
SPECIAL TEAMS MAKEOVER
The spring isn‚Äôt typically a time where special teams get much attention, but given the issues that hurt Georgia last season, that could change.
New inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler is handling the defensive special teams units and tight ends coach John Lilly is overseeing the offensive special teams. They are considered co-special teams coordinator.
Richt hasn‚Äôt had a coordinator for special teams previously, but issues with blocked punts, muffed punt returns, snapping and a lack of punch in the return game made special teams a sore spot.
‚ÄúWithout getting too much into it schematically, we‚Äôll do some different things,‚Äù Ekeler said of punt returns. ‚ÄúWe‚Äôll get after it.‚Äù
Mason will settle into the starting role. He‚Äôll work on his mechanics and further get in synch with a well-seasoned receiving corps that includes Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Malcolm Mitchell, who will be held out of contact this spring.
‚ÄúIt‚Äôs not going to be pretty all the time, I‚Äôm sure we‚Äôre going to have a lot of mistakes, but that‚Äôs what (spring) is for to kind of work on the simple stuff of our offense,‚Äù Bennett said. ‚ÄúWe don‚Äôt get too complicated. It‚Äôs time for us just to get a good foundation for the offense.‚Äù
Will Faton Bauta hold off redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey for the backup quarterback job?
‚ÄúI think he has a tremendous upside, a very high ceiling,‚Äù Bobo said of Ramsey.
Jacob Park the only early enrollee, is also in the quarterback mix, but should redshirt.
‚ÄúI kind of wanted to get used to the offense, get a little extra time, get used to school,‚Äù Park said. ‚ÄúI came in early to get a little jump start.‚Äù
Bobo said his to-do list for the spring might include a wrinkle or two on offense.
‚ÄúThere are a couple of things that we‚Äôre going to look at,‚Äù Bobo said. ‚ÄúI met with some people, but I don‚Äôt want to get into, but a couple of things, not a lot, that we‚Äôre going to try.‚Äù