ATHENS -- Too many times this offseason, Mark Richt has fielded uncomfortable phone calls. Or the Georgia head football coach has had to sigh and look over another news release, announcing the departure of another one of his players.
Theres more attrition in the last couple years than theres been since Ive been at Georgia, Richt said last week, in his understated manner. But you know, sometimes that happens. Well still have plenty of guys to field a team.
This week Richt and his staff finally get to start molding whats left -- and they believe they have plenty left.
The Bulldogs saw a number of transfers and dismissals, none more notorious than tailback Isaiah Crowell, following a June arrest. They enter the preseason with fewer than 70 players recruited on scholarship, well below the NCAA limit of 85. And yet Georgia is still the consensus pick to win the SEC East and could open the season in the top 10 national rankings.
We know we have a great opportunity in front of us, senior receiver Tavarres King said. And you know, were embracing it.
Georgia opens practice Thursday in preparation for a season that begins at home against Buffalo on Sept. 1. All that attrition has made the next month a bit more interesting.
The main areas of concern:
The Bulldogs lost three starters, all of whom were NFL draft picks. The two most important spots, left tackle and center, were vacated, and neither spot was quite nailed down after spring practice.
Junior Kenarious Gates enters as the presumed starter at left tackle, and while he is likely to hold the spot, highly touted freshman John Theus will have something to say about it. Much of the staffs hopes for the line have depended on Theus being as good as advertised.
But the center position is more worrisome. Sophomore David Andrews (6-foot-2 and 280 pounds) isnt as big as Jones, and at times in spring practice, he was overmatched.
Gates and fellow junior Chris Burnette are the only players all but guaranteed a starting spot. Meanwhile, the team still hasnt officially said whether sophomore Kolton Houston will be eligible, after sitting out last year with an unspecified NCAA issue.
Last year, the line looked like it would be a disaster after the opening loss to Boise State. But line coach Will Friend settled on a starting five, and that group improved as the season went on. During the next month, Friend will try to settle on a new five.
They all know that theyre a little bit of a focal point as far as needing to prove that they can do it, Richt said. And I think thats added some incentive to their offseason, as far as I understand.
The tailback spot was thrown into further tumult by Crowells departure. He was basically a co-starter with sophomore Ken Malcome, and senior Richard Samuel was set to move to fullback. Samuel was even listed in the media guide as a fullback.
Now Samuel will get most of his reps at tailback, with freshman Quayvon Hicks and junior Zander Ogletree set to compete at fullback.
But most of the attention in the backfield will be on a pair of highly regarded freshmen. Keith Marshall was at spring practice after enrolling early, but missed the G-Day game because of injury. Todd Gurley arrived on campus during the summer.
If Marshall or Gurley, or both of them, can catch up quickly to their veteran teammates, they have a chance to play right away.
Instantly (Marshall) was definitely looked at as a guy we expected great things from, senior defensive end Abry Jones said. We had Todd Gurley come in. Hes a much bigger running back. When he first told me he played running back it was kind of a shock.
The defense will be Georgias strength -- once it gets everybody on the field. The secondary is already going to be without cornerback Sanders Commings for a two-game suspension, while cornerback Branden Smith is likely out one game, and safety Bacarri Rambo is out anywhere from one to four games. Nothing official has been announced except for Commings.
All of that is why Malcolm Mitchell, the teams best receiver in 2011, is now at cornerback. Mitchell likely will still play plenty of offense, but this preseason, he will continue to get prepared at cornerback, which he last played two years ago in high school.
Meanwhile, the defensive coaches are going to see which non-starters are ready to contribute in 2012. The team has to find a new outside linebacker, since Cornelius Washington has moved to end. Otherwise, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has a number of young prospects to experiment with, such as Josh Harvey-Clemons, Jordan Jenkins and Jonathan Taylor.
This was Georgias weak spot last year, and that was with a senior place-kicker and punter. Now freshmen Marshall Morgan (kicker) and Collin Barner (punter) arrive on campus the presumed new men.
They have got powerful legs, Richt said. Theres no question in my mind they have all the tools to get it done. But the first time you do anything Im sure theyll be nervous. Im sure theyll be nervous in practice. And certainly theyll be nervous in ballgames when they get the opportunity when they win the jobs.
But every aspect of special teams needs some attention. Richt has said there will be an all hands on deck approach, with veterans and starters asked to participate.