A new-look defense and an already proven offense will be on display in today’s G-Day game.
The annual scrimmage usually closes the book on Georgia spring football, but not this year. The practices will spill into next week before wrapping up.
That’s unusual, but G-Day as usual will be a chance for young players to strut their stuff.
Don’t expect to see franchise-type players (like tailback Todd Gurley) getting a heavy workload.
No, G-Day is more about seeing if the hype from the practice fields will carry over between the hedges in Sanford Stadium when fans are in the stands.
Cornerback Damian Swann, defensive end Garrison Smith and inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera are the core that remains from a defense that was hit hard by the loss of NFL-bound seniors and three underclassmen departures, including Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree.
The defensive players are embracing the challenge.
“It’s just a year to rebuild, but it’s not a year to take a step back,” said sophomore cornerback Sheldon Dawson, who is nursing a pulled hamstring and not expected to play today. “We’re not taking any of these days for granted. … We know we’ve got a target on our back, but we also know that we’re young. That doesn’t stop us. That makes us hungry and aggressive.”
Said Gurley: “You’ll see guys hustling out there and giving it their all, which they’ve been doing all spring. You’ll be surprised by what you see from the defense on Saturday.”
Outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins is in line to replace Jones as the top pass-rusher, and several players have stepped up and seem to be on the verge of solidifying starting jobs.
Junior Ramik Wilson, who has worked at both outside and inside linebacker before this spring, is establishing himself alongside Herrera.
“I’d be thrilled if Ramik could continue to improve like he has,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “I think he’s comfortable in there. I think that’s more of a natural position for him. Hopefully he’ll keep coming on.”
The rebuilding of the defense began in January, Jenkins said, with extra time in the film room and newcomers absorbing the playbooks.
“They’re playing with a lot of intensity, playing with passion,” back-up quarterback Hutson Mason said. “They know what they’re doing. There’s a lot of smart guys over there that know the system, that have been in the system for a while.”
The defense also has several early enrollees learning and trying to establish spots on the depth chart.
Tray Matthews had just about nailed down the starting free safety spot even with three spring practices to go. Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin have added depth at inside linebacker.
“We probably wouldn’t be able to do half the stuff we’re doing if we didn’t have those guys here right now,” defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. “Those guys, they’re not going to be freshmen after this spring practice is over. They’re guys I see contributing somehow, some way, whether it be special teams, depth-chart rotational guys or even starting.”
It didn’t take long for Richt to notice early this spring how the defense wasn’t as big after the losses of mammoth nose guards John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers, but the group is athletic. Wilson and other players have said the defense is faster and has something to prove.
“I definitely didn’t think some of the younger guys would be playing with that much enthusiasm,” Jenkins said. “Tray’s playing like he’s been here for about two or three years. He’s talking mess and trying to fire up the guys. He’s been coming down making some pretty good plays. … Nobody’s going to take a play off because they’ve got somebody right behind them to get after it.”
Added Dawson: “It’s great competition. I believe that’s the best thing for building a team and building a good winning team when you have guys competing at this college level. It’s going to show that somebody’s hungry and that we really want it.”
With 10 returning starters on offense, roles are more established, but there are still players carving out roles.
John Theus is getting a crack at left offensive tackle after starting at right tackle as a freshman.
Freshman J.J. Green has added depth at tailback behind Gurley and Keith Marshall.
“He’s played extremely well despite his size,” receiver Chris Conley said of the 5-foot-9, 186-pound Camden County product. “That guy is a ballplayer and a playmaker.”
Staring offensive guard Chris Burnette (torn labrum), receivers Michael Bennett (torn ACL) and Malcolm Mitchell (meniscus) are expected back this summer, but others have worked on improving their games, including quarterback Aaron Murray. Murray spent spring break working with quarterback guru George Whitfield in Oklahoma.
“Right now in the spring, it’s a time to learn and a time for the older guys to get better at the little things,” Conley said. “We’re not super ahead of where we were, but we’re not in a bad place right now. We’ve got to keep working, and if we keep working, I think we’ll be where we want to be come the first game.”