Spring doesn’t change overall picture for Georgia football

semerson@macon.comApril 11, 2013 

ATHENS -- The final seconds were ticking down in last Saturday’s G-Day game, and the key players in Georgia’s young defense were happy. Jordan Jenkins slapped hands with James DeLoach. Sitting on top of the bench, Tray Matthews and Josh Harvey-Clemons smiled when defensive coordinator Todd Grantham walked their way and said something.

It wasn’t audible, but you had a good idea what it might have been.

There’s no doubt that spring practice, which wrapped up Thursday afternoon, was good for the Georgia defense. It out-performed the offense in several scrimmages, including G-Day, and came out with some confidence.

But the celebration described above was a bit subdued, and for good reason. Let us now repeat the four most important words you should take out of spring practice:

It was only spring.

Whatever we’ve seen and heard the past four weeks, and whatever we saw on G-Day, the Georgia football team is still basically where we knew it would be heading into the summer:

• The offense is good, but …

• The offensive line is still a concern.

• The defensive is probably good enough to be ranked in the mid-tier of the SEC.

Head coach Mark Richt, speaking before Thursday’s final practice, didn’t seem too flustered by the situation on either side of the ball.

“I think it was healthy for the offense not to just have their way with the defense the whole time,” Richt said. “The offense performed well most of the spring. But it wasn’t like it was some kind of mismatch. … Defensively, we see really good signs. But we’re not a solid, cohesive unit yet, because again we’re not exactly sure who’s gonna be our starters and who’s gonna play. We’ve got some guys coming in that we think can challenge for some playing time, too.”

Lots of little stuff did change this spring, such as position battles being settled. But in the overall view nothing of huge importance changed.

If you listened to the offensive coaches during the past week, the wheels are in danger of coming off. Well, that’s just good coaching. Obviously the offense wasn’t a well-oiled machine on G-Day or for parts of spring. But it was also without two starters (receiver Michael Bennett and guard Chris Burnette) for all of spring, and perhaps the top playmaker (receiver Malcolm Mitchell) for G-Day.

The offensive line is a worry. Granted. But it’s been an issue for going on three years now, and the past two years Georgia has still made it to Atlanta. The Bulldogs don’t need a great line, they just need a serviceable one that will allow Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley, Mitchell and company to do their thing.

“I’m hoping that the offense understands that last year was last year,” Richt said. “And you can’t say: Well we were good last year, we don’t lose many guys, so therefore we’re gonna be great this year. That’s not always the case, you have to earn it every year. Is the offensive line as hungry as it was a year ago? I don’t know. We’re trying to create that hunger by letting them know, you’ve gotta earn it again.”

The reason the Bulldogs should be hyper-concerned about the offense is that they will still need it to largely carry the team.

Yes, even after the defense had a good spring. Let’s hold off on comparing these guys to the ’85 Bears just yet. This unit just needs to be good, not great, in 2013, and it’s on track to do that.

All along, it was reasonable to expect Georgia would be decent defensively in 2013 despite losing seven starters. There’s still a lot of talent on this defense, and, if it comes together quickly enough, there’s no reason it can’t be just as good statistically as it was in 2012. And as far as coming together quickly, there were two very positive signs this spring:

• Josh Harvey-Clemons found a spot on defense. The coaches put him at the nickel-back role, a hybrid of safety and outside linebacker, where he should get a lot of playing time. Harvey-Clemons, who will also play strong safety in the base defense, was named the defensive MVP this spring. So any worries that Georgia wouldn’t find a place for one of its most talented players were alleviated.

• Grantham showed a willingness to use young players that he hasn’t quite done in the past. Matthews is likely to be the first true freshman to start the opener in Grantham’s four years at Georgia, and inside linebacker Reggie Carter and cornerback Reggie Wilkerson are also in line for playing time.

So all in all, it was an encouraging spring for the defense, and therefore Georgia overall.

But Richt hit on the key point Thursday:

“Until we start playing another team, I don’t know how good we are. I really don’t know. It’s hard to tell. When you go against each other, it’s just hard to tell.”

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com.

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