published Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Georgia upbeat as spring practice starts

The Georgia Bulldogs won 10 games last football season, earned the Southeastern Conference East Division title and return quarterback Aaron Murray as well as 10 defensive starters.

So everything's peachy in Athens, right? Well, mostly.

The Bulldogs did conclude last season with losses to LSU in the SEC championship game and Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, and they led each of those games by double digits. Since the bowl, top cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith have been arrested, former tight end Orson Charles has been arrested and three reserves have been dismissed.

This is a program that could use some on-the-field news, so today's start of spring drills is welcomed by coach Mark Richt and his staff. Here are five spring questions facing the Bulldogs, who expect to be picked among the top five to 10 teams nationally this summer:

  1. IS THERE STILL MOMENTUM FROM LAST SEASON?

Murray, ever the optimist, believes there is.

"We're really excited about this season, and I think we're more excited about the amount of guys we've got back," Murray said. "I think the leadership has just gone up, up and up since my freshman year, and I think this year, with all the guys we've got back, we've even got more guys stepping up, and they are guys who play a pivotal role on this team. You want your best players to be the leaders and to set the best examples for everyone else."

Commings and Smith are seniors who debated turning pro, but will their arrests affect how they now are viewed? Georgia had a clean offseason a year ago, and players occasionally referred to that last fall when they reeled off 10 straight wins, but this year's bunch is off to a rockier start.

  1. HOW WILL THE OFFENSIVE LINE SHAKE OUT?

Georgia lost its two starting tackles, Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson, and center Ben Jones from last year's team, leaving the offensive front as the most obvious area of need this spring. The Bulldogs did lose kicker Blair Walsh and punter Drew Butler, but Richt said the specialists will remain undecided until the summer arrivals of freshmen Marshall Morgan and Collin Barber.

Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee each had multiple starts at guard last year, and Gates is expected to get the first crack at Glenn's former spot at left tackle. Two sophomores who played sparingly last season, center David Andrews and former Dalton High tackle Watts Dantzler, could round out the starting five by the April 14 G-Day game.

"I'm not going to say we're just going to line up and whip tail every single down, because that's tough to do in our league," Richt said, "but I'm encouraged because I see these guys work hard and I see these guys fight through the offseason stuff we're doing. I see some athleticism and guys that I think can learn and not have assignment busts.

"If you have a group of linemen who have a little toughness about them, have got some athleticism and are really coordinated and don't make a lot of mistakes, you've got a chance to move the ball and create space in the running game and give a quarterback time to throw. I think we've got that."

The line could have a new look again in August, once touted tackle signee John Theus enters the fray.

  1. CAN THE SPECIAL TEAMS BE IMPROVED?

The Bulldogs have been impressive in special teams for most of Richt's first 11 years in Athens, but last season was a notable exception. Georgia ranked a mediocre 43rd nationally in punt returns and 65th in kickoff returns and was disastrous in coverage, ranking 116th on punt returns and 88th on kickoff returns.

Richt said more time will be devoted this spring to special teams in drill work.

"We had a team meeting the other day, and I told everybody in the room that all hands are on deck and that everybody must do the drills," he said. "We're going to find out -- I told Murray he may be covering kicks and to just get ready. Everybody needs to get involved in our special teams to make sure we've got the best personnel out there."

  1. WILL A TOP TAILBACK BE NAMED?

Sophomore Isaiah Crowell is the SEC's second-leading returning rusher after his 850 yards last season, but he was suspended for a game and battled an ankle injury down the stretch. His motivation was questioned on more than one occasion, but coaches and teammates believe he matured during the winter.

"I think he's ready to put last season behind him," Murray said. "He still had a great year and rushed for 850 yards, which is pretty impressive for a freshman, and I am excited to see what he can do this year."

Crowell has plenty of returning company with Ken Malcome, Carlton Thomas, Richard Samuel and Brandon Harton, but the tailback who has generated the most excitement is early enrollee Keith Marshall. After accepting the challenge and then defeating speedy receiver Malcolm Mitchell in a 40-yard dash, it's safe to say Marshall isn't one to back down from competition.

  1. CAN CORNERBACK DEPTH BE ESTABLISHED?

With Commings and Smith facing early-season suspensions, the Bulldogs will be looking at a very young crop in their absence. Damian Swann, former Ridgeland High standout Devin Bowman and special teams menace Blake Sailors will get looks, but the player expected to make the biggest impact is Malcolm Mitchell.

Mitchell, who racked up 45 receptions for 665 yards last season despite missing three games with a pulled hamstring, is expected to work almost exclusively this spring at cornerback.

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

Evan Stichler/UGA photo

Georgia returns 10 starters, including linebackers Alec Ogletree (9) and Jarvis Jones (29), from a defense that ranked fifth nationally in fewest yards allowed during the 2011 season.

about David Paschall...

David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...

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