Georgia’s defense has two coaches with a combined 22 years working in the NFL, so even if the Bulldogs are well short of the NCAA’s maximum number of 85 scholarship players, they know it isn’t the end of the world.
David Manning/Staff Freshman running back Isaiah Crowell (1) watches during a drill at Georgia‚Äôs first preseason practice on Thursday afternoon.
Second-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and first-year inside linebackers coach Kirk Olivadotti made do with fewer available bodies in their time in the pro game.
“I love a lot of things about Grantham, but one thing I like the most is he’s so used to playing with a 53-man roster,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said Thursday before the Bulldogs opened preseason practices. “When you’re looking at a college depth chart, you’re thinking, ‘Man we might be thin.’ He’s like, ‘Coach, I’m used to playing with 53 guys,’ and he’s right.”
Offseason attrition — including players transferring away — has left Georgia with 77 scholarship players (including former walk-ons Reuben Faloughi and Ty Frix), meaning nearly one of every three scholarship players will come from the 2011 signing class.
Georgia is hardly the only Southeastern Conference team in that boat. Auburn opened preseason camp with 71 scholarship players.
Georgia is particularly thin at inside linebacker (where Mike Gilliard is the only experienced backup behind Christian Robinson and Alec Ogletree), tailback (after the departures of Washuan Ealey and Caleb King) and on the offensive line (after the transfer of Brent Benedict and A.J. Harmon and a knee injury suffered by Trinton Sturdivant).
“There are some spots that we can’t afford much injury issues,” Richt said. “I say that and then somebody steps up and does great.”
With walk-ons, teams are allowed to have up to 105 players on the roster before classes start. Those players can help fill in the gaps at Georgia, where at least seven scholarship players were dealing with injuries or health issues as it opened camp — Sturdivant, linebackers Brandon Burrows and Sterling Bailey, offensive linemen Xzavier Ward and Austin Long, and defensive ends Derrick Lott and Dexter Morant.
Georgia continues to wait for word from the NCAA Clearinghouse on linebacker signee Kent Turene, who is not with the team. Two other freshmen, Amarlo Herrera and Ramik Wilson, could work into the rotation at inside linebacker.
“We are low in numbers, but not in quality I don’t think,” Robinson said. “You’d love to have a big old Akeem Dent (who led the team in tackles last season as a senior), but he’s not there.”
Despite the thinner numbers in spots, Richt said he’ll approach practices this month with “a good mix of making sure we’re doing the things we need to do to get better at blocking and tackling, but also having some breaks in between where we’ll just be teaching and taking it easier on their bodies.”
On the offensive line, Georgia has a pair of four-year starters in Jones and Cordy Glenn, while Kenarious Gates and Justin Anderson also have starts under their belt. But the Bulldogs may need to rely on a freshman like Watts Dantzler to provide depth.
Georgia has three other healthy freshman offensive linemen — Zach DeBell, David Andrews and Hunter Long — who already went through 6 a.m. summer workouts before preseason even began and joined other players for drills and filmwork.
Jones said they can help by “just having them coming in and pushing other guys even if they’re not in there to start — just playing good and competing so the starters are not relaxed and say, ‘Hey, I’ve got to work hard every day because this guy is busting it.’ “