Spring practice critical for UGA to find new playmakers on defense

There will be plenty of defensive talent on display at Georgia next month.

“It’s going to be a zoo,” Mark Richt said.

The Georgia coach was referring to the program’s Pro Day workouts on March 21. Twelve defensive players are expected to take part.

The Bulldogs, who begin spring practice on Saturday, must plug the holes left by those NFL prospects.

They will have plenty of unproven players trying to show that they are ready to step into more prominent roles.

Georgia and Texas A&M are the first two among the Southeastern Conference to begin spring practice.

“The next 15 days of practice, to me, are critical,” said defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, starting his fourth spring in Athens. “We need to find out exactly what they know, what they can do and how they can help us and then where we can fit the guys that are coming in because we’ve still got some more talented young players coming once the summer gets here.”

The Bulldogs will practice 14 times before the G-Day game on April 6 at 1 p.m. in Sanford Stadium.

Richt said he thinks it will be fun to watch the new wave of players develop on a defense that returns just three players who started in the Capital One Bowl.

“It really is,” he said. “I think our coaches are excited about it. We think we might be able to create more depth than we had a year ago if guys step up. You’ve got your Ray Drews and your Mike Thorntons and Sterling Baileys — guys like that that are waiting for an opportunity. You’ve got young players that are going to get their opportunity to show that they can play the game.”

Drew, Thornton and Bailey are part of a defensive line group that will have plenty of new blood in redshirt freshman Johnathan Taylor and newcomers Chris Mayes and John Atkins.

“If all of these guys come through for us up front … shoot, we might even have more depth if we have a bunch of guys that can all prove that they’re ready to play so collectively instead of one guy playing 50 or 60 snaps, maybe we can have a couple of guys playing 30 apiece and maybe be as effective or even more effective,” Richt said,

Grantham is putting a positive spin on what he has to work with, mentioning “eight to nine,” players who started games at one time or another last year.

“We’ve got good players and we’re going to develop them and get them moving,” he said.

Cornerback Damian Swann, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera, defensive end Garrison Smith and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins each started at least six games.

Chase Vasser got two starts at outside linebacker and Connor Norman, Devin Bowman and Malcolm Mitchell (now full-time at receiver) got some starts in the secondary when Georgia dealt with early-season suspensions.

James DeLoach and Josh Dawson are among players joining Jenkins competing at outside linebacker.

Ramik Wilson appears to have the inside track to start opposite Herrera at inside linebacker.

The rising junior will play strictly in the middle this spring, Grantham said, after working both inside and outside in the past.

“Amarlo’s a guy who’s played for us for two years,” Grantham said. “Ramik’s a guy that we’ve always felt good about. This is obviously a chance to show us what he can do. I think the combination of Amarlo and Ramik with the two early signees (Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter) will allow us to have a feel for exactly what those guys can handle and do going into the summer.”

Another early enrollee, Tray Matthews, will compete to start at free safety.

Georgia’s six defensive early enrollees also includes safety Quincy Mauger.

“When you start talking about the new guys and Corey Moore, this is their chance to really showcase what they can do,” Grantham said.

Sheldon Dawson, Devin Bowman and freshman Reggie Wilkerson will compete for a starting corner spot opposite Swann.

“Coach Grantham likes mixing things up and moving people around,” said Jarvis Jones, the two-time All-American who left after his junior season and is projected as an NFL first-round draft pick. “I can’t tell you what he’ll do, but I’m sure he’ll get the right people in the right spots to play those positions in certain packages and certain situations.”

That includes talented sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, who coaches say will work at both safety and outside linebacker this spring.

“He’s very versatile,” Richt said, “and quite frankly there’s certain games where he may add more value at safety and there will be other games where he adds more value as a linebacker.”

Notes: Georgia will be without tailback Keith Marshall for at least the first week of spring practice.

The team’s second-leading rusher pulled a hamstring on Feb. 9 running the 60 meters for the Georgia track team at Virginia Tech.

“The only running back we’ve got healthy going into spring ball right now is (Todd) Gurley,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

Bobo seemed to take it in stride that Marshall sustained the injury running track.

“He pulled his hamstring playing football last spring and missed nine practices and still did pretty well,” Bobo said. “I don’t get too beat up about it as long as he’ll be ready to go. Keith’s the type of guy that I don’t worry about.”

J.J. Green, a 5-foot-8, 171-pound early enrollee from Camden County, will get a look “as a scatback type of guy” this spring, Bobo said.

…Fullback Zander Ogletree’s Georgia football career is over.

The school said the rising senior won’t play for the Bulldogs again “due to medical concerns.”

There has been speculation about Ogletree’s status on the team for weeks.

Richt didn’t elaborate.

“He’s got a medical issue and he can’t play anymore,” Richt said. “But he’s going to stay in school and we hope he does well in school and graduates.”

Ogletree, the twin brother of former Georgia linebacker Alec Ogletree, rushed for 14 yards and a touchdown on three carries and had four catches for 25 yards last season.

The Bulldogs return sophomores Merritt Hall and Quayvon Hicks at fullback.

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