Top five Georgia football storylines entering spring practice

Mark Richt told Georgia’s returning players after the Bulldogs’ triple-overtime loss to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl that he was bullish about the future of the team and “what we can become in 2012.”

The on-field work begins Tuesday with the start of spring practices.

“I think everyone’s really excited about the potential we have for this season,” quarterback Aaron Murray said of a team coming off a 10-4 season and a Southeastern Conference Eastern Division title

Georgia returns 10 defensive starters under coordinator Todd Grantham from the bowl game after safeties Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams, linebacker Cornelius Washington and others followed the lead of All-American linebacker Jarvis Jones in returning.

“We can get deeper into the playbook because we have another year under coach Grantham’s scheme,” Rambo said. “We know a lot, but we’ve still got stuff we can learn. It’s going to be fun, so much excitement out there because we have everybody coming back. Coach Grantham, I know he’s going to have fun with us now. We know stuff and he can throw stuff at us and we’ll know what to do.”

Murray, a third-year starter, is back for his redshirt junior season, but the Bulldogs must find a replacement for one of his favorite targets — tight end Orson Charles. Junior Arthur Lynch and redshirt freshman Jay Rome will compete for a starting spot.

‚ÄúI‚Äôm not as worried about who‚Äôs going to start as much as who‚Äôs ready to play football for Georgia in the Southeastern Conference and help us win the Eastern Division and beyond,‚Äù said Richt, starting his 12th spring at Georgia. ‚ÄúThe more depth we have, the better chance we have of staying fresh and staying healthy. … This is the time of the year where guys start to show you that they‚Äôre ready for that.‚Äù

Two of the biggest positions to fill are punter and kicker following four seasons of Drew Butler and Blair Walsh holding down the Georgia specialists jobs.

Incoming freshmen signees will have a leg up for the job when they arrive this summer. Collin Barber from Cartersville is the leading candidate at punter and Marshall Morgan from Coral Springs, Fla., is the heir apparent at kicker.

Five spring storylines

1. Malcolm Mitchell’s move to cornerback and players growing up at the position

Suspensions, transfers and dismissals have thinned Georgia’s cornerback position in the last six months.

Sanders Commings will miss the first two games after his domestic violence arrest in January and Branden Smith is facing a suspension of at least a game after being charged in Alabama with possession of marijuana during spring break. Jordan Love and Derek Owens transferred and Chris Sanders and Nick Marshall were dismissed.

Now, it’s Mitchell to the rescue.

The sophomore receiver was the nation’s top-rated cornerback recruit out of Valdosta High and will work full-time this spring in the secondary and be needed early in the season at cornerback.

“All you can do is just put me out there and see,” Mitchell said before Smith’s arrest. “When you talk about cornerback depth, depth is fine, but you still have to have the people out there that are going to perform and be able to withstand the area where they’re supposed to. Not saying the ones that are there won’t do it, but you just have to see.”

This spring will offer sophomore Damian Swann and redshirt freshman Devin Bowman a chance to impress coaches at a position that lost the dependable Brandon Boykin.

The 5-foot-11, 187-pound Swann, from Grady High in Atlanta, started one game last season and made five tackles in 11 games.

“He’s got some huge shoes to fill with Brandon Boykin playing that nickel position,” Rambo said. “He’s talented. I know he’s got it in him.”

2. Keith Marshall and Isaiah Crowell headlining at tailback

Marshall, the early enrollee from Raleigh, N.C. rated by some as the nation’s top tailback recruit, impressed Richt by diving straight into the playbook at his first team meeting. He already won a 40-yard dash against Mitchell in a race that went viral among Bulldogs fans after Aaron Murray sent it out on Twitter.

“I was like, ‘Wow,’ ” Murray said. “It’s pretty impressive what he can do.”

“I’m going to let him soak in his little glory right now,” Mitchell said with a smile. “But it won’t happen again.”

Georgia will be happy if Marshall can outrun defenders this fall.

Teammates are already gushing about the Marshall, who turned 18 last month.

“I heard he’s got a higher GPA than his 40 time,” tight end Arthur Lynch said. “You can never ask for a better situation than that.”

Marshall’s stated spring goal is simple: “Learn the playbook and compete.”

“He’s a kid that’s going to work hard,” Murray said. “I think that’s great. Talent-wise, it’s all there.”

Marshall will be competing this spring at the position with a crowded field of returners led by leading rusher Isaiah Crowell, Ken Malcome, Richard Samuel, Carlton Thomas and Brandon Harton. Signee Todd Gurley will join the group this summer.

“I’m pretty excited about that position this year with all of our running backs,” Murray said.

Crowell has shown more maturity this winter after a sometimes rocky freshman year, teammates and Richt say.

“I think Isaiah has definitely grown up,” Richt said. “He’s getting there.”

3. Shoring up special teams

In a team meeting prior to spring break, Richt reminded his players that he’s looking for everybody to pitch in this season to help improve the special teams, an area that was a sore spot for the Bulldogs in 2011.

“I told Murray he may be covering a kick, so just get ready,” Richt said. “Everybody’s going to be involved in our special teams to make sure we have the best personnel out there.”

Georgia brought in coaches from the NFL to enhance its special teams and also met in Athens with one college coach.

“We’ll probably spend more time with our special teams in drill work,” Richt said of the spring. “We probably won’t do a bunch of kicking off and covering kicks as a group, but do all the fundamentals that they need to learn to do properly. We also want to use those drills to find out which players have the ability to do it.”

The cornerback attrition this offseason means the special teams also took a hit, Richt said.

“Most every great player who’s not a quarterback, maybe some offensive linemen other than on extra point or field goal, most of those guys at one time or another are going to play some special teams,” Richt said. “Like I’ve been saying, ‘All hands on deck.’ ”

4. Breaking in a new-look offensive line

Georgia’s pro day earlier this month featured three departed Bulldog offensive linemen: tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson and center Ben Jones.

Kenarious Gates and Chris Burnette are returning starters and Dallas Lee started seven games before breaking his right leg. Junior college transfer Mark Beard (6-foot-4, 300 pounds) could have the inside track for the starting right tackle job.

“The new guy — big guy — Beard looks awesome,” Murray said. “He’s a very impressive-looking dude. We have plenty of guys. We’ve just got to figure out who’s going to go where.”

Sophomore center David Andrews and tackles Watts Dantzler and Austin Long also will look to solidify spots in the rotation.

“Guys like Andrews and Watts and Austin, those guys are ready to step up and compete for a starting job this spring,” Murray said.

John Theus, a five-star recruit out of Jacksonville, Fla., will be in the mix in the preseason and could factor in at tackle.

“You’re trying to determine how many guys will really be game-ready by the time we get going,” Richt said. “There may be as many as eight or nine in my mind that if they keep progressing can line up and play SEC football. And that counts the guys we signed as well.”

5. Tavarres King building off his Outback Bowl showing

Georgia’s last game was the best of King’s Bulldogs career. Can the fifth-year senior be an All-SEC-caliber player this season?

With Mitchell helping at cornerback and Charles gone, having a receiver step up their game would be a big boost.

King had six catches for 205 yards and a touchdown in the bowl game.

“I feel like we have a lot of great receivers,” Mitchell said. “Of course, if I play defense, some of my reps on offense will be taken. I feel like we’ve got other receivers that can back it up just as good as I would.”

Michael Bennett and Chris Conley, who will be limited this spring after a wrist surgery, join Marlon Brown as top returners.

Can redshirt freshman Justin Scott-Wesley work his way into the rotation this spring. How will Rantavious Wooten fit in after missing much of last season after a concussion?

“It’s not like the cupboard’s bare at receiver,” Richt said.

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