Georgia won’t open its 2011 football season against Boise State in the Georgia Dome for nearly six more months, yet the Bulldogs have already taken the first steps that they hope will help produce a bounce-back season.
The team hits the practice field Thursday for the first time since a Liberty Bowl loss to Central Florida left the Bulldogs with a 6-7 record, their first losing season in 14 years.
"It came up on us fast," receiver Tavarres King said. "I’m glad it did to get that last-season taste out of our mouth. I’m really excited about spring and ready to get things rolling."
The arrival of spring practices will be the first on-field work for the entire team and coaches this year, but already there’s been significant activity.
"We’ve had a tremendous two months since that ballgame," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "We’re ready to get out there and work on our craft."
Since the start of the year, coach Mark Richt landed his "Dream Team" recruiting class that is expected to bring an instant impact come September.
With the completion of the $33 million Butts-Mehre expansion, Georgia coaches are now in new offices and the team has an indoor multi-purpose area with synthetic turf that can be used this spring for practice during inclement weather. There also are new meeting rooms, a training room, weight room and team lounge.
It’s been a relatively quiet offseason so far with players off the field.
Tailback Washaun Ealey’s suspension from team activities lasted less than three weeks and Murray’s ankle sprain from playing soccer isn’t expected to keep him off the field for the start of spring drills.
Changes in the strength and conditioning program under new director Joe Tereshinski were made with an eye towards better endurance for a team that faded too often in the fourth quarter. Mat drills were scrapped and the emphasis has been on hitting the weights.
The Bulldogs were outscored 95-68 in the fourth quarter and overtime, while outscoring opponents in the first three quarters 349-192.
"Everybody’s gotten stronger, everybody’s gaining weight," cornerback Brandon Boykin said. "Everybody’s looking really good. When ya’ll see us in uniform (Thursday), you’ll be able to tell the difference."
Georgia’s staff is putting an added emphasis on nutrition, including less fried foods and more tracking of what the players eat.
"I think the guys are going to be excited to see what their new bodies can do when we get out there," said Richt, whose team’s second practice won’t be until after spring break on March 22. "We’re definitely going to practice with a lot of intensity."
Here are five lingering questions as spring begins:
1. Will the new-look linebacking corps start to jell?
No area of the team will look more different this spring than at linebacker.
Georgia lost three starters – outside linebackers Justin Houston and Darryl Gamble and inside linebacker Akeem Dent – and Marcus Dowtin, its fourth-leading tackler.
Former Redskins defensive assistant Kirk Olivadotti is the new inside linebackers coach, replacing Warren Belin.
The lone returning starter – junior Christian Robinson – will take over for Dent as the "Mike" inside linebacker after working at both inside positions last year.
"It’s where I want to be," Robinson said. "I want to be the guy making the calls."
Alec Ogletree will be the other starter inside at the "Mo" position after his move from safety. That allows transfer Jarvis Jones to play outside linebacker.
"I think he’s a natural outside backer," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said of Jones. "I think he’s going to be very productive there."
Cornelius Washington is moving from strongside linebacker to weakside linebacker, where sack leader Justin Houston played last year.
"He’s going to basically be that guy and allow him to utilize some of the things that he can do well," Grantham said. "I think that will be good for us."
Richard Samuel, who redshirted after moving from running back, could factor in at inside linebacker if he can stay healthy.
2. How will life be after A.J.?
Georgia lost its top two receivers – including expected NFL top-10 overall pick A.J. Green and Kris Durham – and has just four scholarship receivers with playing experience.
"I think those guys have got a tremendous opportunity, but I think there’s enough talent in the bunch to get the job done," Richt said.
King, now up to 196 pounds, moves from split end to flanker, where Green had 57 catches for 848 yards and nine touchdowns in nine games last season.
"There’s going to be so many opportunities out there on the field that anybody can step up and be the man," said King, third on the team last year with 27 catches for 504 yards and three touchdowns.
The rest of Georgia’s returning receivers – Marlon Brown, Rantavious Wooten and Israel Troupe – combined for just 21 catches last year.
Redshirt freshman Michael Bennett and early enrollee Chris Conley could push for playing time. Signee Malcolm Mitchell could move up the depth chart this summer.
"There’s a lot of guys that I think can make plays for us," Richt said. "We’ve got a bunch of young kids coming in that are going to be hungry. I think we’ll be fine."
3. Who will emerge at safety?
Georgia returns three starters in the secondary – cornerbacks Boykin and Sanders Commings and safety Bacarri Rambo – but there is a question mark at one safety spot after Ogletree moved to linebacker.
The top candidates are Jakar Hamilton, who started five games at safety last season, and Shawn Williams, who started three. Redshirt freshman Marc Deas also is in the mix and incoming freshmen Corey Moore and Chris Sanders could factor in this summer.
Rambo can play either free safety or strong safety.
"This is a good opportunity for Jakar and Shawn to see what they can do," Grantham said.
This will be the second year in the 3-4 defense for Boykin, Commings and Rambo.
"The learning curve will be a lot smaller and the guys can really hone in on techniques and understanding the whole package," secondary coach Scott Lakatos said during bowl practices. "They can play a little faster and make some more plays."
4. Can current tailbacks impress this spring?
Georgia signed Isaiah Crowell from Carver Columbus High School to bolster a running game that finished 10th in the SEC last year.
Crowell could be the starter from the get-go for the Bulldogs, but he won’t arrive on campus for a few months.
That gives Washaun Ealey and Caleb King along with Ken Malcome and Carlton Thomas time to make their move in the next 15 practices.
"I just want to see them compete," Richt said. "I want to see them prove they can hold off the young pup coming in."
King and Ealey have been sidetacked by off-field issues.
Both were arrested in 2010. King missed the bowl game for failing to attend academic appointments. Ealey is back after serving his suspension in February.
"I just wanted to grab (Ealey’s) attention in all areas," Richt said. "We want him to be the very best he can be in football, in the classroom and off the field, everything. We want him to be great. He can be if he really takes the right attitude towards it. … I’m thrilled he’s back. …Lesson learned, hopefully."
5. How will offensive line shake out?
Will Friend’s first order of business as Georgia’s new offensive line coach is to rebuild the right side of the unit, where guard Clint Boling and tackle Josh Davis have departed.
Left tackle Trinton Sturdivant and center Ben Jones return as does Cordy Glenn, who is expected to hold down the starting right tackle spot.
"Those guys are going to be the starters unless something crazy happens," Richt said.
Sophomore Kenarious Gates, who started three games last season, and senior Justin Anderson, who started five games on the offensive line in 2009, are top contenders to start at guard.
Will any reserves push for playing time? Tackles Austin Long and Brent Benedict and center Chris Burnette are coming off injuries. A.J. Harmon, Dallas Lee and Kolton Houston are other possibilities.
"They’re all starting from scratch with me," said Friend, who replaced Stacy Searels after he departed for Texas.