Georgia’s new defense is ‘trimmer’ but ‘faster’

semerson@macon.comMarch 2, 2013 

ATHENS -- Georgia’s first spring football practice was a bit misnamed. It was cold throughout, and near the end came a wintry mix.

“I don’t know if it was hail or snow,” head coach Mark Richt said. “But we had a really good day, I thought. Very high energy. But my guess it had to do with trying to stay warm.”

The Bulldogs will hope for better weather during the next 12 practices and then the spring game April 6 -- and then two more practices after that, thanks to a reconfigured schedule.

A big emphasis during the next month will be the revamped defense, where just four starters return, and only one of them is a senior. Richt got his first on-field look at the unit Saturday, and what he saw was a smaller, but faster, group.

“We are definitely not as big up front. But we’re pretty quick and athletic,” Richt said. “So it’s gonna be interesting to see how we’ll hold up against a smash-mouth team and all that kind of thing as the season goes on. But we certainly have got some guys that can really run.”

They do have some big players: John Taylor, Chris Mayes and John Atkins, three of the top candidates to be at nose tackle.

“But we don’t seem quite as thick,” Richt said. “We’re trimmer, it seems like. I think we’re more athletic and faster.”

Josh Harvey-Clemons is one of those players. Much of the intrigue about the defense is where he will play as a sophomore -- safety, where he worked last year in practice, or outside linebacker, his high school position. The team has said he will move between both spots. For what it’s worth, he was playing safety with the first-teamers during a portion of Saturday’s practice media members were allowed to view.

If Harvey-Clemons is going to move from safety to linebacker, the conventional wisdom held that he would have to add weight to his 220 pounds. But he doesn’t appear to have done that yet.

“Yeah, he looks slim, doesn’t he?” Richt said. “Surprisingly, Josh, he’s relatively stout on contact. Even though he looks tall and rangy, which he is, he doesn’t look super-thick. But when he strikes he actually holds up pretty good.”

The notable debuts

It was the first college practice for 12 early enrollees. Another, inside linebacker Ryne Rankin, practiced with the team before the bowl. Richt was asked if any of them stood out, but he didn’t seem to want to alienate anybody, naming all of them.

It was the first Georgia practice for Chris Wilson, hired two months ago to coach the defensive line. Wilson appears to be a little less demonstrative than Rodney Garner, his predecessor.

“He’ll bark out instructions and encouragement and all that, but if he wants to say something else that might not be quite as uplifting, he tends to want to get real close to them and whisper something in their ear,” Richt said.

Tailback travails

Freshman J.J. Green, an early enrollee, was recruited to campus as an athlete, with most analysts pegging him for cornerback. But it appears his destiny is on offense.

Green is working at tailback for the time being, and it doesn’t appear defense is in the offing for now. Richt said the coaches were eyeing Green as a slot receiver.

“That’s kind of where we think he’ll find his niche for us offensively,” Richt said. “And, of course, special teams we wanna see where he can do there, too.”

Todd Gurley was the only other tailback on scholarship available Saturday. Keith Marshall and Brandon Harton (a former walk-on) were out with injuries. But those two players were running on the side and appear on track to returning in a couple weeks, after spring break.

‘Thrilled’ to still have Ball

Tony Ball was coaching Georgia’s receivers Saturday, as he has the past several years. But that was after an under-the-radar courtship from Tennessee, which interviewed Ball to be its running backs coach.

Ball reportedly received a raise from his current $210,000 salary to stay, and Tennessee hired someone else Friday.

“I’m thrilled to death that he’s still here,” Richt said. “Tony’s one of the best coaches I’ve been around. He’s so meticulous in his work. … He’s got some really strong leadership qualities, too. I think he’s a guy who could be a coordinator one day somewhere. But I’m really glad he’s here. I don’t even think the players knew what was going on, Tony’s a very private guy. But I’m glad he’s staying.”

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