ATHENS – Georgia officially begins its 2009 season today when the Bulldogs hit the practice field for the first time since the team’s G-Day game in April.
The start of fall practice also marks the first time the Bulldogs will work with their full compliment of new freshmen – only Aaron Murray, Zach Mettenberger and Dallas Lee were on campus this spring – and a host of injured players are returning to full practices for the first time in nearly a year.
Despite the numerous new faces and a great deal of turnover from last season, however, surprisingly few jobs appear up for grabs. Georgia returns seven starters on each side of the ball, and while several veterans appeared to solidify their claim to many of the vacancies this spring, there are still a few battles worth watching before the Bulldogs kick off against Oklahoma State on Sept. 5.
So, before you memorize your unofficial depth chart, here are 10 key position battles to watch during the next month.
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1.) Starting tailback. The departure of Knowshon Moreno for the NFL leaves a gaping hole on Georgia’s offense, and sophomore Caleb King failed to capitalize on a chance to nail down the job this spring. While Richard Samuel, who is recovering from wrist surgery, Carlton Thomas, Dontavius Jackson and new freshman Washaun Ealey could all push for the job, too, it’s perhaps as likely that the Bulldogs will instead employ a committee approach when the season begins.
2.) No. 3 receiver. Michael Moore had a breakout game against Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl, and Georgia hopes he can fill the void left by Mohamed Massaquoi, but Moore is best as a slot receiver, leaving the split end job open for someone to help take the pressure off A.J. Green. Tavarres King, Israel Troupe and freshman Marlon Brown are the top candidates.
3.) Middle linebacker. Junior Darryl Gamble filled in admirably for injured senior Dannell Ellerbe last season, but it’s Akeem Dent’s name atop the depth chart at middle linebacker this fall. Gamble is listing as the starting Sam linebacker, but with more teams running the spread offense, that position spends plenty of time on the sideline as defense are forced to use five or more defensive backs. Gamble will push for playing time in the middle, along with senior Marcus Washington, who returns from injury this fall, and sophomore Marcus Dowtin, who impressed in limited action last year.
4.) Kicker. Mark Richt grabbed headlines last season by promising to go to Poland to find a kicker whose leg could reach the end zone on kickoffs. As it turned out, he only had to go to California. Junior college transfer Brandon Bogotay arrives this fall to push sophomore Blair Walsh for kickoff duties and perhaps more.
5.) No. 2 quarterback. Joe Cox is firmly established as Georgia’s quarterback this year, but the future remains up for grabs and this fall could go a long way to determining who is under center in 2010. Sophomore Logan Gray is No. 2 on the depth chart now and had a nice spring, but Murray and Mettenberger both have tons of talent, too. Richt said if either freshman can prove they deserve to be the No. 2 player, he’ll find a way to play them this year.
6.) Early season starter at defensive end. Justin Houston will miss the first two games of the year while serving a suspension, meaning Georgia will need to identify someone to start at defensive end alongside Rod Battle in Houston’s absence.
7.) Starting guard. The offensive line looks like it will be a strength for Georgia – but maybe a little too strong. Chris Davis and Justin Anderson were each regular starters last season but will need to fight for a similar role this year with Vince Vance and Trinton Sturdivant returning from injuries.
8.) Nickelback. Brandon Boykin has been named the starter at corner alongside Prince Miller, but redshirt freshmen Sanders Commings and Makiri Pugh and true freshman Branden Smith are all looking for playing time in the secondary, as well. All three will battle for early playing time at nickel and could push Boykin for the job at corner.
9.) Starting tight end. Aron White appears to have the inside track at tight end, but freshmen Orson Charles and Arthur Lynch have both earned strong reviews during voluntary workouts this summer.
10.) Kick and punt returners. Georgia met with mixed results using a potpourri of returnmen last season, most notably Miller and Samuel. Neither is likely to reprise their role in 2009, leaving the door open to second-year players like Boykin and Thomas or freshmen speedsters like Smith or Jordan Love.