Camp start: Aug. 2
Opener: Buffalo in Athens (Sept. 1 on SEC Network at 12:21 p.m.)
Fun fact: For the first time in program history, two Bulldogs defenders who earned All-America honors the year before (linebacker Jarvis Jones and safety Bacarri Rambo) are returning to Georgia's lineup.
Friday's preview: Kentucky
Should the Georgia Bulldogs repeat as Southeastern Conference East Division champions this football season or take it a step further with a league title, they will look back fondly at early January.
Less than two weeks after a triple-overtime loss to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl, almost every starter on Georgia's defense had inquired about his NFL draft status and faced a decision about whether to return. Every defender chose to come back, leaving 2011 senior cornerback Brandon Boykin as the only departure on a unit that ranked fifth nationally in fewest yards allowed.
"We all talked to each other before we made the decision to come back, and we knew as soon as last year ended that we could do something big," defensive end Abry Jones said last week at SEC media days. "I really haven't been in a situation like this since high school, and when it happened, we came back and won a state championship. I'm very optimistic about the year, and I'm ready to get started.
"We all think the sky is the limit for us."
The Bulldogs blossomed during their second season in coordinator Todd Grantham's 3-4 scheme, holding foes to 277.2 yards per game. They were especially stout against the run, with their 101.2 yards allowed per game the program's best single-season average since 1985.
Outside linebacker Jarvis Jones made it clear late last season that he would be returning, and following suit were Abry Jones, nose tackle John Jenkins, linebackers Cornelius Washington and Christian Robinson and defensive backs Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo, Branden Smith and Shawn Williams. Georgia held a news conference Jan. 13, when smiling coach Mark Richt announced the return of a slew of players standing behind him, and that day remains meaningful months later.
"It's just been a blessing," Jarvis Jones said. "I love these guys. We enjoy each other and have fun together. We're like brothers, and we've just got to cherish the moment we have right now. I'm glad we all came back."
Said Richt: "It was a very, very exciting day for Georgia the day all those guys decided to stay. They've been working their tails off."
Every projected starter on this year's defense made multiple starts last season, though Commings has been suspended for the first two games, while Rambo, Smith and linebacker Alec Ogletree are believed to be facing suspensions as well.
Bulldogs defenders are looking not only to build off last year but to avoid the slow start and faltering finish that soured an otherwise bounce-back season. Georgia was riddled out of the gate by Boise State quarterback Kellen Moore, who completed 28 of 34 passes for 261 yards and three touchdowns, and punished by South Carolina tailback Marcus Lattimore, who rushed for 176 yards and a score on 27 carries.
An 0-2 start was followed by 10 consecutive victories in which the defense proved overpowering nearly every Saturday, but Georgia was throttled 42-10 by LSU in the SEC championship game before losing the bowl game. In both the SEC title and the bowl, Georgia's defense pitched a first-half shut out.
"Our sense of urgency has to stay the same the whole game," Abry Jones said. "I don't know if we got a little laid back or thought we had something in the bag, but every time we turned around it seemed like it was something else. We have to keep a sense of urgency and keep working."
A 6-foot-3, 309-pound senior from Warner Robins, Ga., Abry Jones had as strong a finish as any Bulldogs player last season. He had four tackles and 1.5 tackles for loss against Auburn and Kentucky, and he helped limit Georgia Tech's triple-option with seven stops.
He closed last season with 47 tackles, seven tackles for loss and four sacks.
"Abry is a big defensive end who has just quietly become one of our better football players," Richt said, "and I think he's one of the better football players in the SEC. He's certainly a guy who has become an outstanding leader for us."
Though Jarvis Jones and Rambo earned most of the laurels last season and are receiving more this year, Abry Jones doesn't mind that Georgia's front occasionally gets slighted.
"Our plays will come to us when they come," he said. "We do our job, and we all know that without us they couldn't do their job and that without them we couldn't do ours. We really don't get caught up in all the accolades."