ATHENS -- There is a digital clock in the Georgia football building that for the past eight months has been counting down the months, days, minutes and seconds until the season opener against Clemson. At 5:30 p.m. on Saturday, that clock went under the week mark.
But even as Georgia’s focus completely turned to Clemson, coaches professed high degrees of uncertainty. The depth chart, starting spots and rotations remained up in the air, with even a returning All-SEC player facing questions.
Of course, much of it may have been coaches playing coy, as summed up by offensive line coach Will Friend.
“I think if you want to get your program in a position to be the best, you’ve gotta make them feel uncomfortable,” he said.
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Some things have remained obvious all along. Quarterback Hutson Mason, tailback Todd Gurley and receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett are the stars of the offense. The front seven is the strong point of the defense. Place-kicker Marshall Morgan is the known quantity on special teams. So what else was learned during the past three-plus weeks?
Keith Marshall is healthy and will contribute: There have been no setbacks yet for the junior tailback, unlike Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley, and Marshall has looked good in practice. Gurley obviously will be the lead back and get a lot of carries, as offensive coordinator Mike Bobo indicated Friday. But Marshall is back to being a part of the offensive attack.
Quayvon Hicks will also play a role: This is partly due to fullback Merritt Hall having to end his career because of concussions. That leaves Hicks as the prime candidate to fulfill his old role at fullback. But he has also looked good in his new spots, tight end and H-back. He even has given presumed starter Jay Rome a run at tight end.
Blake Tibbs is among the receivers set to play a bigger role: Mitchell has yet to return to practice, and Scott-Wesley is out at least one game because of suspension, perhaps more because of his recovery from surgery. That leaves a third starting spot open -- Georgia was in the three-receiver set 72 percent of the time last year -- and Tibbs, who hardly has played the previous two years, has enjoyed a strong preseason. Sophomore Reggie Davis, Kenneth Towns, junior Michael Erdman and senior Jonathan Rumph are also in the mix, as is exciting freshman Isaiah McKenzie.
The offensive line is almost settled: Sophomore Brandon Kublanow appears to have won the lone open spot, at left guard. Sophomore Greg Pyke only solidified his hold on the right guard spot. It looks like junior John Theus will be at left tackle. And while Kolton Houston remains the favorite at right tackle, he’s getting a push from fellow senior Watts Dantzler.
The defensive staff is not as high on last year’s standouts, Ramik Wilson and Ray Drew: There have been some who have tabbed Wilson a preseason All-American, but of Georgia’s four linebackers he’s the one with the most tenuous job security. Coaches say it’s because Wilson missed about 10 days of practice with a concussion. Then there’s Drew, who was a preseason third-team All-SEC pick by the media but has been running with the third team. Drew also has gotten second-team snaps, and he will play, but he will begin the season with a lot of work to do.
Lorenzo Carter will play: Everyone knew the five-star recruit wouldn’t redshirt, but Carter has impressed the coaches enough that they’re going to find ways to get him on the field. It was noteworthy that Mike Ekeler, the inside linebackers coach, said Friday “we’ve made some moves,” which might indicate some packages that get creative with how the linebackers are used.
The secondary is in similar shape as at this point last year: Damian Swann is set at one cornerback spot, as he was last year, while the rest of the secondary will be unproven. Senior Corey Moore and walk-on Aaron Davis appear in decent shape at safety. Freshman Dominick Sanders was starting at the star spot last week, with junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng at the other cornerback spot. The only thing that is certain is that Jeremy Pruitt, the defensive coordinator and secondary coach, will have most everyone on a short leash.
No surprises on special teams yet: Collin Barber seems to have won the punting job back, but Adam Erickson is still likely to handle pooch punts. McKenzie is in the mix on punt and kick return, along with Davis and some others.