ATHENS -- A few weeks before a planned spring break trip to Key West, Georgia starting quarterback Aaron Murray spoke to the media about the state of his team. The much happier state of his team, compared to a year ago.
“Last year the whole talk was you don’t get to the SEC championship game, you don’t win 10 games, blah blah blah, coach (Mark) Richt’s gonna be fired,” Murray said. “It was stressful, I think not only for us but the coaches. So I think this year everybody’s a little bit more (like), ‘Relax, let’s just go out there and play.’
“I don’t think anyone’s on the hot seat or worrying about that.”
Indeed, the hot seat talk is gone, and, as spring practice begins Tuesday, Georgia seems the favorite to repeat as SEC East champion.
“Everyone’s really excited about the potential we have for this season,” Murray said.
Murray is the most entrenched of the Bulldogs, along with the nine returning starters on defense. But elsewhere the team has plenty of questions that await a possible resolution during the next four weeks. Here they are in order of importance, along with a best bet on how the situation stands after the April 14 spring game:
Malcolm Mitchell’s position
Is he a receiver, a cornerback, or both? The team’s most explosive offensive player as a freshman, Mitchell will spend the spring working at cornerback. That doesn’t mean he’ll end up there in the fall, but how he performs in the spring will help determine that.
But it’s not all about Mitchell and whether he picks up cornerback, which he played in high school. It also depends on whether Damian Swann, Devin Bowman or others emerge as viable starters for the season’s first game or two. One starting cornerback, Sanders Commings, is suspended the first two games, and the other, Branden Smith, is likely out at least one game after a marijuana arrest.
Best bet: Mitchell does well at cornerback, as do the receivers in his absence, but the coaches decide to punt any final decision until the summer. Ultimately, Mitchell will still play receiver, it’s just a matter of if it’s on a full-time or part-time basis.
Keith Marshall vs. Isaiah Crowell (and company)
Crowell’s failure to secure the starting job last year, mostly due to injuries and off-field issues, led the coaches to recruit Marshall and fellow tailback Todd Gurley. Marshall is already on campus, so he and Crowell will be going head-to-head all spring, their every movement very closely watched.
But don’t forget about Richard Samuel, who was last year’s opening-game starter. That is, assuming Samuel stays at tailback and doesn’t play fullback.
There’s also Ken Malcome, who after quitting the team for one day last season has, like Crowell, earned positive reviews for his offseason work habits. Carlton Thomas and Brandon Harton are still around too, while Gurley arrives this summer.
Best bet: Nobody emerges as the definitive starter. Crowell, Marshall and Malcome each have their moments, while Samuel experiments at fullback. Richt announces after G-Day that it will be a week-to-week competition starting in August.
The offensive line
This is the most worrisome spot on the team, thanks to the departures of three seniors, including both tackles and the center. The most important spot is the left tackle spot. The favorite might not even be on campus yet: John Theus, a five-star recruit from Jacksonville, Fla.
But Watts Dantzler, Kenarious Gates and anybody else aspiring to it had better take advantage now.
At center, sophomore-to-be David Andrews is the favorite, but Chris Burnette, who started at guard last year, also will get a look.
Offensive line coach Will Friend has more pieces to work with than last year, especially with junior college transfer Mark Beard having enrolled early. Last year Friend emerged with his starting five decided, and it largely stayed that way. This time around, it will be more difficult to do that until August.
Best bet: No one says it, but Theus is still all but guaranteed a spot when he arrives. Among those who didn’t play much last year, Dantzler has the best spring and makes clear he will play at some point. So does Beard. Andrews holds off Burnette for the center spot.
The backup quarterbacks
The plan is still for Hutson Mason to take his redshirt year -- but the plan could unravel if something happens to Murray. Will Christian LeMay, who redshirted last year, or Faton Bauta, the freshman early enrollee, be ready to step in for Murray?
LeMay will get the most attention, because if he has a good spring then the team will feel more comfortable ruling Mason out for this season.
Best bet: LeMay does enough to assure the coaches, but not enough that Mason still isn’t the next option if the worst were to happen with Murray.
Who makes the big move
Jay Rome and Ray Drew were five-star recruits last year, but Rome redshirted and Drew barely played as a freshman. Marlon Brown and Rantavious Wooten were highly recruited four years ago but have yet to stay injury-free and put it all together. Do they do it as seniors?
Will there be a spring sensation who carries it into the summer? Last year Kwame Geathers went from forgotten man at nose tackle to the starter, while Harton went from a walk-on to a contributor at tailback.
Best bet: Rome remains second-string behind Arthur Lynch at tight end. Drew gets time at outside linebacker and defensive end, with the plan to continue backing up at both spots. But candidates to emerge include receiver Justin Scott-Wesley, who redshirted as a freshman, Swann and Bowman at cornerback, and safety Corey Moore.