ATHENS – There are players who, as Georgia begins spring practice on Saturday, will use the next few weeks as a tune-up. They don’t need spring practice so much as they put up with it. Aaron Murray, for instance, could throw a dozen interceptions on G-Day and kick his head coach in the hip, but Murray will still be the starting quarterback on Aug. 31 at Clemson.
But for more than a few Bulldogs the next few weeks will be critical. These are players for whom their time on campus is running short, and if they’re going to grab a starting job, or at least move up the depth chart, now is the time. There are also some younger players who better use the reps they’ll get this spring to show they will be factors this year.
With all that in mind, here are those players for whom spring practice looms big:
1. QB Christian LeMay: Let’s put it this way: If LeMay finishes spring still behind walk-on Parker Welch, then you have to begin to wonder when it’s going to happen for him at Georgia. LeMay needs to show enough mastery of the playbook, and enough passing ability, to have at least a solid hold on the No. 3 starting job, behind Murray and Hutson Mason. If LeMay is behind Welch, or even Faton Bauta or early enrollee Brice Ramsey, that’s not a good sign for him. At a minimum, Lemay needs to position himself as a viable alternative should something happen to Murray and Mason.
2. ILB Ramik Wilson: This is finally Wilson’s chance, after two years of shifting between inside and outside linebacker and not really seeing much of the field at either spot. He will start out the spring beside Amarlo Herrera on the first team. But Wilson needs to play well enough to hold off the newbies – Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter, who are already enrolled, and Tim Kimbrough and Johnny O’Neal, who arrive this summer.
3. DE Ray Drew and Sterling Bailey: These two are competing with each other to start opposite Garrison Smith, but if the coaches are true to their word, then both Drew and Bailey will play – as long as they earn confidence from those same coaches. Otherwise, some of the options at nose tackle (John Taylor, Chris Mayes, John Atkins) could get a look at end, the same way John Jenkins did last year. In other words, Drew and Bailey aren't really competing against each other so much as they're competing with every defensive lineman.
4. OLB Chase Vasser/T.J. Stripling: Here are two rising seniors who could benefit if Georgia decides to go with experience at the OLB spot opposite of Jordan Jenkins. Vasser in particular would have an edge. But a bunch of younger players are breathing down their necks. (Forgive the cliché’, but at least I didn’t incorrectly use “literally.”) Josh Harvey-Clemons will split time between OLB and safety. James DeLoach will get a shot. So will Josh Dawson. Leonard Floyd, Shaun McGee and Davin Bellamy (who could also play end) arrive in the summer. This spring is the time for Vasser and Stripling to show they offer up more than just knowledge of the system.
5. S Corey Moore: The chances are pretty good that Moore will be one of the starters when Georgia takes the field at Clemson. But it’s not certain, what with Harvey-Clemons still an option, Tray Matthews on hand to show his wares, and Connor Norman offering veteran experience. Moore, who will be a junior this fall, could go a long way towards solidifying the defense by cementing a starting spot this spring.
6. NT Mike Thornton: While nose tackle is perhaps the most wide-open competition this spring, the most urgency exists for Thornton, who will be a fourth-year junior this season. The coaches say they’re not as worried that Thornton isn’t as big as the traditional nose tackle, and like his ability to create leverage to make a push. But his size is still a fact, so Thornton needs to show that his pound-for-pound strength and experience are more valuable than the sheer size and abilities of Taylor, Atkins and Mayes.
7. Dallas Lee: Lee has been a starter for most of the past two years, but the rising senior’s hold on left guard is a tenuous one. If Mark Beard, a rising junior, plays well enough to the first-team left tackle, then Lee is most likely the odd man out. (Center David Andrews, right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus are basically set. So Kenarious Gates likely moves to left guard.) Lee needs to show he’s still one of the top five.
8. OL Austin Long: He actually was on the cusp of playing more before hurting his arm before the Capital One Bowl. That was a bad break, but Long is being given another chance this spring, opening up as the right guard, with Burnette out for spring practice after shoulder surgery. Can Long, who will be a senior this year, play well enough to finally push for playing time? (Note: A bunch of veteran linemen who haven’t played much yet, from Watts Dantzler to Zach DeBell to Hunter Long, could also use a good spring.)
9. CB Devin Bowman: It’s not out of the realm of possibility that Bowman could be a first-teamer, opposite Damian Swann. But he starts out behind Sheldon Dawson, who impressed coaches as a freshman last year. Now Bowman also needs to hold off early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson, as well as Shaquille Wiggins and Brendan Langley, who have a chance to play right away when they arrive this summer.
10. WR Blake Tibbs: OK, there isn’t a huge amount of urgency here, as Tibbs still has four years of eligibility. But in the short term, if Tibbs wants to be a regular part of the rotation entering the season he needs to take advantage now, while Tramel Terry is out. Tibbs will get more practice snaps now, with Marlon Brown and Tavarres King having moved on and Terry as well as Michael Bennett sitting out the spring. The Bulldogs figure to have about five receivers set for playing time (Malcolm Mitchell, Bennett, Rantavious Wooten, Chris Conley and Justin Scott-Wesley.) There’s room for one or two more in the rotation, and junior college transfer Jonathan Rumph has a lot of ability. So the opportunity to get some extra snaps is one Tibbs should use.