March 19, 2012

Spring storylines abound

The word "potential" is one that's been bandied about with some regularity when it comes to talking about Georgia's 2012 football team.

After winning the SEC East and the fact the Bulldogs return the bulk of last year's 10-4 squad, many are predicting similar - if not greater success - for Mark Richt's squad.

But although the mood around the Butts-Mehre is noticeably more upbeat than this time last year, as Georgia gets ready to kick off spring practice Tuesday, making sure that potential becomes realized will be the team's optimum goal.

"We haven't really talked about last season at all. First couple of days after we got back from the (Outback Bowl) we went back and watched the games," quarterback Aaron Murray said. "But I think after that pretty much everyone has put the season behind them. It's all about developing the potential we have for this season."

Potential, yes there is. But there are also some questions that need to be answered.

From replacing three starters on the offensive line, Malcolm Mitchell's new adventure at cornerback, to building depth at positions on both sides of the line of scrimmage, there's plenty that that Richt and his assistants will look to accomplish by G-Day (April 14) in an effort to make sure the potential many believe the Bulldogs have will be realized come fall.

Below, UGASports takes a look at some of the bigger storylines this spring.

How will secondary shake out?

When the season concluded, depth at safety and cornerback did not appear to be that big of an issue.

True, Georgia was losing senior Brandon Boykin to graduation, but even with that loss, early indications were that the Bulldogs wouldn't be lacking for enough bodies to miss much of a beat.

Now, there is reason for some concern.

It started when Jordan Love decided to leave the program, followed by the dismissals of Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders for violating team rules.

But after Sanders Commings was suspended following his arrest for domestic violence resulting in a two-game suspension and Branden Smith's arrest in Alabama last week for possession of marijuana, there are now further questions. Smith faces at least a one-game suspension following his arrest, but even before his incident the cupboards at cornerback were already bare.

In fact, Richt had already decided to give Mitchell a long look at corner this spring, announcing recently that the Valdosta native would be spending all his time on the defensive side.

"This spring he's going to be working almost exclusively on defense. He may run over and run a route every once in a while or there may be a scrimmage where they run him for a couple of plays he already knows," Richt said. "But the goal for him is to be as proficient as a cornerback as he can possibly be and have enough of a working knowledge, so once they work out in the summer and when we start camp that he'll have a pretty good feel of that position."

Still, Richt isn't ready to say if the move will be a permanent one.

"I don't know what will happen in the fall, whether he will go exclusively defensive back or not. I don't know the answer to that yet," Richt said. "But you can't be at both meetings at the same time, so I feel like we're going to have to have him help at corner and once Sanders comes back into the fold, I can see the time he sees on offense may increase. But going up to then, he's got to be ready to play a full game at defensive back until at least game two and after that we'll see."

The remaining corners on hand for the spring haven't had that much experience, either.

That list includes sophomores Damien Swann and Quintavious Harrow, redshirt freshman Devin Bowman and special teams standout Blake Sailors, one of the team's fastest players.

Sophomore Corey Moore saw brief action at safety last year, but is listed as a corner in Georgia's spring football media guide."

Seniors Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams return as the starting safeties, but the Bulldogs will be looking to players like Marc Deas and Connor Norman to provide adequate depth at the position.

Who will start on the offensive line?

Although that question may not be completely answered until the fall, the Bulldogs hope to have a general idea by the conclusion of spring.

"Anytime you replace three starters (Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones, Justin Anderson) you always have question marks, the question is whether you have the talent base on the team to get the job done and I'm really getting encouraged," Richt said. "I'm not going to say that we're going to line up and whip tail every single down because that's tough to do, but I'm encouraged because I see these guys work hard, I see these guys fight through the off-season work that we're doing, I see some athleticism, I see some guys who will and can learn and not have assignment busts and things like that."

Finding a replacement for Glenn at left tackle figures to be the biggest challenge, but Mark Beard, Austin Long, Kenarious Gates and possibly Watts Dantzler, are each expected to get equal looks.

Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette are back as the returnees at guard with sophomore David Andrews expected to take over for Jones at center.

Kolton Houston could figure into the mix, but Georgia officials still have not commented on his situation since not playing last year due to an "NCAA-related" issue.

Dantzler, Zach Debell, Xzavier Ward and Beard will get looks at right tackle. Incoming freshman John Theus should figure into the mix at tackle once he arrives in the fall.

"I think everyone has put them under the radar, worried about them, but those guys have been working hard. You could tell last year going against our defense during the season. We go 1s vs 2s during the season and Hutson (Mason) would pretty much have to get the ball and get it right away," Murray said. "But you could see throughout the season, Hutson getting more and more time to throw the ball and by the time we got to bowl practice, those guys were giving him plenty of time to throw the ball against some of the best defensive guys in the country."

Who will return kicks?

Richt said he'll be looking at a number of players, not only in the spring, but also preseason, when it comes to deciding who will serve as the Bulldogs' top kick- and punt returner now that Boykin is gone.

"We're going to allow everybody to get their opportunity to do that. We may not have guys returning kicks this spring as much as fielding kicks. We're definitely going to have guys fielding kicks and that's the biggest key. When you have a kickoff man, when's catching the ball there's a lot of space, a lot of safety, they're not right up there in his snout so to speak when he's catching that football," Richt said. "But the punt returner, he's the one who's got to have a lot of nerve and be ready to field that ball when somebody's within inches away. If you catch the ball and drill you within a half a second, they're not going to call anything so you're going to have to be able to do that from time to time so whoever can handle that kind of pressure is the guy who is going to have the best shot of winning that job."

Richt mentioned Smith, Carlton Thomas, Mitchell as three players who would get an opportunity to do both, as well as freshman running back Keith Marshall and perhaps Todd Gurley in the fall.

"Historically running backs are guys who have a chance to be kick return men and we've got some new guys who we're going to see what they can do," Richt said. "But I'm more concerned right now with not so much who is returning them, but who can cover, make a tackle in space; who can protect and those types of things."

Will rest of special teams be improved?

Richt said improving Georgia's overall special teams play has been a priority since the season ended and will continue to be so throughout the spring.

"We had a couple of gentlemen from the NFL come in and we spent time with them, one gentleman from the collegiate ranks to come in and they talked about special teams," Richt said. "We feel like we know what we're going to do, now we've just got to get the right people in and get it taught properly."

Richt did not reveal who the coaches he sought the help out from, although he did publically thank athletic director Greg McGarity for the UGA Athletic Association footing the bill, not only to send some of his coaches out to visit other programs, but also bringing other special teams experts to UGA.

"He (McGarity) didn't say there was no budget," Richt said. "But we haven't been turned down to do anything in that way, and that's been great."

Bringing coaches into Athens has been the preferred method.

"I prefer to bring people in because they're at our place, we can ask anything we want; we've kind of got 'em. If we go to their place, they may still be working so for two hours you guys watch film and then we'll come in about what you saw," Richt said. "If you got 'em here, there's no where they can hide you, you know? We had more people come in, which was better, but we did have a couple of coaches take off and see some people out of Athens."

With Mitchell at cornerback, who steps up at wide receiver?

There are still few question marks here.

Senior Tavarres King will lead the group.

King has been a steady performer throughout his Bulldog career, and at times has shown flashes of brilliance as evidenced by his showing in the Outback Bowl where he caught six passes for 205 yards and a touchdown.

But with Mitchell focusing more on defense, the Bulldogs will need more receivers to step up.

Marlon Brown, [db]Michael Bennett, Rhett McGowan and Taylor Bradberry are back, but many eyes will be on Rantavious Wooten, who missed most of last year with a concussion, along with redshirt freshman Justin Scott-Wesley.

Sophomore Chris Conley will also be a key figure, but he'll be limited this spring due to off-season wrist surgery.

Can Murray's game improve?

Despite setting a Georgia record with 35 touchdown passes, Murray hasn't been immune from his share of criticism.

After throwing 14 interceptions - including four pick-six throws - Murray's turnover ratio last fall is something the rising junior knows he has to correct when spring practice begins in three weeks.

"Obviously, I wasn't as accurate as I needed to be," Murray said. "You can look back at a couple of games where I threw some bad interceptions, so I need to improve on that, too."

Better footwork, he said, would help.

"There were times last year where Coach (Mike) Bobo and I would talk where I rushed my footwork, maybe got out of the pocket a little too early and maybe didn't slide up and slide around the pocket maybe as smoothly as I needed to be," Murray said. "That's the first thing; the biggest is having your feet set, being able to maneuver around the pocket and get in position to throw the football."