Georgia’s football team will hold its first preseason practice this week, with roughly a month remaining before the Sept. 3 opener in Atlanta against Boise State.
With preseason camp nearing, Athens Banner-Herald beat writer Marc Weiszer identified five issues for Bulldogs fans to watch throughout the month:
1. Can Isaiah Crowell live up to and handle the hype?
The prized recruit from Carver High School in Columbus has yet to even practice for the first time for the Bulldogs and there’s already been plenty of message board chatter about what he has or hasn’t done in voluntary summer workouts.
“He’s a freshman like the rest of them,” coach Mark Richt said. “He’s got to learn how to handle college, period, but I think he’s doing well.”
Linebacker Christian Robinson has worked out at a different time than Crowell on most days this summer, but he’s seen enough to get a sense of Crowell’s talent.
“One day we were out there and he was able to burn some people,” Robinson said. “He has all the physical tools that are necessary to be a great back here. I’m excited to see him in camp.”
Also at tailback again are Richard Samuel, who rushed for 528 yards in 2008 and 2009, redshirt freshman Ken Malcome and Carlton Thomas.
All eyes will be on Crowell.
“We think he has a tremendous skill set,” Richt said. “We think he’s got a chance to be very outstanding, but he’s got to know what to do and prove that he can hang onto the football and all those kind of things. He’s got to compete for it. I don’t think he’s afraid of competing, so we’ll see what happens.”
2. How will Georgia hold up with limited depth on the offensive line?
Georgia was already scrambling when starting tackle Trinton Sturdivant tore the anterior cruciate ligament in his knee near the end of spring practice. Then possible starter A.J. Harmon and backup Brent Benedict transferred out of the program.
“We’re not very deep, but you only need five,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “We played I think it was ’02 with only five linemen the whole year. One other year we played with six. You would like to have more depth. I feel good about the three seniors (Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Justin Anderson) we have. I feel good about some young guys in Chris Burnette and Kolton Houston.”
Georgia will look to left guard Kenarious Gates to swing to tackle in a pinch. The emergence of Austin Long, who missed time with a torn pectoral muscle this spring, as a backup tackle would be a bonus. Dallas Lee, a center/guard, is back after suffering from asthma-like conditions in the spring. Among the freshmen, tackle Watts Dantzler from Dalton could play himself into a reserve role.
“The bottom line is, heck, it’s a production deal,” offensive line coach Will Friend said, “and whoever’s butt gets called on better be the ones that produce. That’s what will happen. We’ll have five that are going to produce.”
3. Who will emerge as playmakers on offense?
Georgia lost its top two receivers in No. 4 overall NFL pick A.J. Green and fourth-round pick Kris Durham. Its leading returning rusher available for the Boise State game is quarterback Aaron Murray because Thomas is suspended.
“I look it more as there are opportunities for a lot of people,” Bobo said. “Obviously the productivity you lost in yards with losing the top two rushers and the top two receivers, we’ve got to find guys that can make plays.”
Receiver Tavarres King, now at flanker, and preseason All-Southeastern Conference tight end Orson Charles move into more prominent roles.
“We’re hungry,” Charles said. “We don’t mind being the underdogs. I feel like we have a lot to prove to everybody out there.”
Crowell could be the answer at tailback.
Receiver Malcolm Mitchell from Valdosta will join junior Marlon Brown at split end.
Mitchell has created the most chatter this summer among freshmen.
“I’ve never seen anybody who can stop on a dime like he can,” Robinson said. “I love A.J. (Green), but A.J. could never stop like he can. He gets separation. A.J.’s got that speed and quickness, but I’ve never seen anybody with the speed he has and just the separation that he can achieve with his routes.”
Georgia has three other scholarship freshman receivers: Chris Conley, Justin Scott-Wesley and Sanford Seay.
“Coach (Tony) Ball said with the lack of depth, they’re trying to get the freshmen ready to play,” Scott-Wesley said in May.
4. What are some other position battles to watch?
The starting safety spot opposite Bacarri Rambo and right offensive guard.
Shawn Williams will begin camp as the second starting safety.
“I thought he did a really good job in the spring,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “I thought he worked on playing the deep part of the field. I thought he came through the spring progressing.”
Injuries in the second half of spring practice cut short the competition there, but it will reignite now. Jakar Hamilton also is competing for a starting spot.
Starting cornerback Sanders Commings remains a wild card at safety, where he worked some this spring. The plan is for him to work at corner early in August practices and then shift again to safety.
“We wanted to look at him a little at safety and then he got hurt,” secondary coach Scott Lakatos said. “I can’t really say whether he can do it or not. He’s got to go out there and play it and we have to evaluate it and see if that’s the best thing for us.”
Chris Burnette is atop the depth chart at right guard. He is athletic and has a good grasp of the offense, but Kolton Houston could push for the job.
“Kolton Houston had a really good spring,” Friend said. “He’s come a long way.”
5. Which newcomers will make an impact?
Start with 6-foot-4, 345-pound junior college transfer John Jenkins, expected to give the Bulldogs a 1-2 punch at nose guard with Kwame Geathers, the defensive MVP this spring.
“He’s already impacted our defense,” Grantham said. “The progress that Kwame’s made is a reflection of signing Jenkins. I think that he’s a guy that is a talented guy. He has some size, he can run. I like the guy’s personality as far as his demeanor. I think all of those things do nothing but help that room and help that group, which can go through the entire defense.”
Freshman Amarlo Herrera could make an immediate impact as a backup inside linebacker. Depth at the position has thinned after Samuel was moved to tailback and Brandon Burrows was lost for the season due to a shoulder injury.
Five-star recruit Ray Drew could provide a pass rush at outside linebacker and his role could become even more vital depending on what happens with Jarvis Jones’ availability due to possible NCAA violations for improper benefits.
Grantham said Drew is “a guy we’re obviously going to throw in the fire and see what he can do.”
Chris Sanders and Damian Swann have been singled out by veteran players as freshmen who have impressed this summer.
“We might have done as good at corner as any position in this recruiting class,” Richt said.
Georgia has depth in the secondary. Some of those athletic freshman defensive backs could provide an option for spot duty on offense.
That includes Nick Marshall, who played quarterback at Wilcox County and could line up in a “Wild Dawg” formation on offense.
“It would have to be just how productive we are early in camp,” Bobo said of the possibility of using Marshall on offense. “Do we feel like we’ve got enough guys? Do we need guys with more speed to touch the ball? Is there somebody on defense there that will give us more of an opportunity to make more big plays?”