Remember last year when Georgia went into spring practice with more questions on the offensive side of the ball? Starting Saturday, the roles are reversed.
This season, it's the defense which will go into spring drills under the microscope as the Bulldogs must find replacements for nine starters, although according to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, there may not be quite as many questions as some might think.
"If you go back and look, we actually have eight or nine starters coming back depending on how you look at it," Grantham said. "When you are losing the number that we lost, and you have that many guys coming back, what that says is that you played a lot of guys. Over the last 28 games, we probably had 24 different starting lineups, mixing and matching and doing those things. We've got some guys that have been here for a while and it's their turn to show what they can do."
Head coach Mark Richt agrees.
Saturday's morning session at the team's Woodruff Practice Facility will be the first of 15 spring workouts for the Bulldogs, including the April 6 G-Day game which will be televised by CSS at 1 p.m.
"I want to see competition at everybody's position, I want everybody to prove they can play for Georgia and that they deserve to start or they deserve to have playing time," Richt said. "I want to see competition with the offense versus defense. Every drill we run against each other, I want a winner and a loser and I want to see guys want to win."
As usual, there are plenty of storylines fans are sure to want to follow.
Here are some of the bigger ones:
● Who will take over at nose, following the graduation of John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers' decision to leave early for the pros?
● Can sophomore Will linebacker Jordan Jenkins make the same kind of impact as Jarvis Jones, who also left early for the NFL?
● With three starting jobs open in the secondary, which Bulldogs will step up to claim those positions?
● What middle linebackers will emerge following the graduation of Christian Robinson and Mike Gilliard?
● Does Malcolm Mitchell assume the leadership role among the receivers, and what impact will newcomers like Jonathon Rumph make?
● All five offensive line starters return, but which players can be counted on to provide additional depth?
● Can kicker Marshall Morgan correct the issues he had last year with extra points?
● What impact will new defensive line coach Chris Wilson have?
There are some other items of note as well.
● The Bulldogs will be without starting right tackle John Theus and starting right guard Chris Burnette for the spring while they recover from their respective off-season surgeries. Both are expected to be 100 percent by fall camp.
● Wide receiver Michael Bennett will not take part in spring drills, although he has back running routes. According to UGA, he is expected to be cleared by June.
● Running back Keith Marshall will not practice for at least the first week of spring while he recovers from a hamstring injury that occurred while running track.
Of course, no spring is complete without a heavy dose of fundamentals, especially on the defensive side with so many young players getting their first opportunity at real playing time.
"The big thing we always go back to is first, fundamentals at our position, second, learning to compete and playing aggressive," Grantham said. "I think you have to learn to win the position before you can help us win a game and finally learn what to do. If we can get those things done, it carries over to the fall because when we play aggressive and compete and get after it, we create turnovers and we are hard to score on and those are the things we've done well the last two years."
In addition to practices, Grantham will also use scrimmages to evaluate the defense during the spring.
"The big thing with scrimmages is to evaluate what players can and can't do," Grantham said. "So I'm more concerned about finding out more about us and what we can do and what we can handle and the things that will allow us to be successful," he said. "That's how we've always approached it. Obviously, we have to go against our offense because we're not allowed to scrimmage other teams. So when we go into those scrimmage settings I want to find out what our players can take and carry over to what's going to help us be productive and get back to Atlanta for the third time."
Getting the secondary squared away will go a long way toward that ultimate goal.
Rising junior Damian Swann is the lone fulltime secondary starter back for the Bulldogs, and is someone Grantham expects to build the unit around.
"Damian is a guy that played for us as a freshman and he led our team in interceptions last year and was tremendous last year," said Grantham. "If you look at the way he played and the way he progressed, I expect him to be a leader for us back there. Obviously, Connor Norman is a guy that started for us in the first part of last year. Connor's been a guy that's been really good working with the young guys as far as Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger and helping develop those guys along with Corey Moore."
Matthews and Mauger - two of the team's 13 early enrollees, has already made an impression on Grantham.
"Tray is a guy that I've been really impressed with-his movement skills, his intelligence and the way he handles himself-I think he's a guy that can definitely help us," Grantham said. "We're going to throw him to the fire and let him get going. Quincy is another guy that's really impressed us since he's been here. I'm really glad that we have both of those guys right now, because if not we'd be short back there and wouldn't be able to work with those guys like we can now."
It's also going to be a big spring Moore.
"Corey is a guy that's been here, and it will be a chance to step up and show us what he can do," Grantham said. "We still have a few other guys that can come in so I think for all those guys, the next 15 days of practice is really critical because we need to find out exactly what they know, what they can do, how they can help us and then where are we going to fit the guys that are coming in."
Sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons will also be an interesting story to watch.
The former five-star performer worked out exclusively at safety last year for the Bulldogs, but this spring will be asked to play multiple positions, including outside linebacker.
"He's just one of those guys; he can play safety, he can play outside linebacker, we think he can rush the passer. He's just a very talented guy," Richt said. "I think one of the reasons that we want to play him at more than one spot is because you face more than one style of offense. There may be a certain offense where you'd like to have him as a safety and another offense where you'd like to have him as an outside linebacker. Certain styles of offense will maybe dictate where he lines up that week. He's very versatile and there's certain games where he might add more value as a safety and certain games where he'll add more value as a linebacker."
As for the defensive line, Richt said the depth there may not be as bad as some might think.
Together with early enrollees Chris Mayes and John Atkins, the Bulldogs feels they've got enough capable bodies to make a big difference when it comes keeping players fresh, something that was not always the case last fall.
"We think we might be able to create more depth than we had a year ago, if guys step up. We've got guys like Ray Drew, Sterling Bailey and Mike Thornton who are waiting for an opportunity. We've got some young players who are going to get their opportunities to show that they can play the game," Richt said. "If all these guys come through for us up front, even though we lost some very good defensive linemen, we might even have more depth if we have a bunch of guys that can all prove they're ready to play. So instead of one guy playing 50 or 60 snaps, we can have a couple of guys playing 30 apiece and maybe be as effective or even more effective. We're looking forward to seeing that all throughout the defense."
Though the offense has a lot of experience returning, Richt knows there is still work to be done.
That includes the offensive line.
"I think an offensive line is much harder to gel, so to speak. All five of those guys have to start doing things right or you've got nothing, where defensively, you might have two of four do a great job and be able to blow up a play," Richt said. "I don't know if it will take quite as long for the defensive guys to get to the point where they can really compete well. From experience, the offensive line is going to have more experience than the defense. So, I think that will bode well for the offensive skill players towards at least giving them a chance."
Making sure all his quarterbacks get some quality work is one of the biggest challenges facing offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Although Aaron Murray is the unquestioned starter, Bobo hopes to use the spring to give his immediate subordinates as much practice time as he can.
"It's going to be interesting. We had a little agility the other day where I had my group and there's a line of seven when you count the two walk-ons in Greg Bingham and Parker Welch," Bobo said. "I'm going to have to be creative in how we get them reps because we've got some experience in Aaron and Hutson Mason and even Parker Welch, but at the same time you don't want to think they've got it down and not work them. You've got to make sure they get work and still bring along the young guys and create some depth there. It's a situation that we're going to have to work through, make sure that we get all these guys good quality work and find out who can get ready to play and who can help us in the fall."
Building depth at running back behind Todd Gurley was also going to be a goal. That's even truer now that Marshall is expected to miss the first week of spring drills.
"That's one goal this spring is to get some depth there," said Bobo. We're going to try J.J. Green out there as a scat back type of guy and then I've mentioned before that Tramel Terry is a guy that could dual-train from receiver to running back. There are also some guys that we'd like to build depth with that aren't here yet. It's going to be a touchy situation here in spring ball, we like to compete in practice but we can't let our competitive juices get too much where we want to win every drill and wear Todd Gurley out at the same time so we've got to be smart about it as coaches. We've still got to get work out of them too so it's a fine line."
Merritt Hall and Quayvon Hicks will battle it out to see who the starting fullback becomes.
One new player Richt is looking forward to seeing on the field in practice is Rumph at wide receiver.
"We're very excited to see what he might be able to do. He's tall, he's got long arms, and he can run, he's tough, he's a very conscientious kid and he's really a neat guy. Just from recruiting him and getting to know him and his family, you knew that he's not going to come in here and mess around. He's going to come in here and get right to business," Richt said. "He's done that in the offseason conditioning, it's been tough, like it is for a lot of those guys, going through mat drills for the first time. He's been fighting through it and getting better every day. We can't want to see what he can do."