The Georgia Bulldogs will begin preseason football practice Thursday with a desirable roster after an undesirable offseason.
Gone is tailback Isaiah Crowell, the 2011 Southeastern Conference freshman of the year who was dismissed in late June following an arrest on felony weapons charges. Suspended for two games is cornerback Sanders Commings, and there are three other defensive starters facing possible suspensions as well.
Despite a tumultuous past few months, there is talent galore in Mark Richt's 12th season as coach, beginning with proven quarterback Aaron Murray and a veteran defense headed by outside linebacker Jarvis Jones that ranked fifth nationally in yardage allowed a year ago. Murray shattered a school record last season by throwing for 35 touchdowns, so he is certainly not a concern entering his redshirt junior year.
Here are the five biggest questions facing the Bulldogs a month from their Sept. 1 opener against Buffalo:
1. Who will grab the starting tailback spot?
Crowell had been bracketed with fellow sophomore Ken Malcome as the No. 1 tailback, and it actually was Malcome who got the first carries in the G-Day spring game.
The 6-foot, 226-pound Malcome led the Bulldogs in rushing each of the last three games last season, though it was just a combined 127 yards against Georgia Tech, LSU in the SEC championship game and Michigan State in the Outback Bowl. He will be challenged by senior Richard Samuel and two freshmen, Keith Marshall and Todd Gurley, whom Rivals.com ranked among the top 50 prospects overall in the 2012 signing class.
Marshall enrolled early and went through some of spring practice before being sidetracked by a hamstring injury.
"We've obviously got to move on, and there are some opportunities for some young backs to step up," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "We knew we needed some depth when we signed these two guys. We told them there would be an opportunity to play, and now they have a bigger opportunity to play."
2. Can the freshman kickers take over?
It has been assumed since signing day in February that freshman punter Collin Barber and freshman kicker Marshall Morgan would take over the roles that Drew Butler and Blair Walsh seemingly occupied forever.
Barber played at Cartersville High, while Morgan is from American Heritage High in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where he made 25 of 28 field-goal attempts in his last two seasons. The new tandem arrive at a time when college football is implementing new kickoff rules.
3. Will Richt reveal any suspensions?
All-America safety Bacarri Rambo, cornerback Branden Smith and linebacker Alec Ogletree are expected to be suspended for at least the opener, but nothing has been set in stone. Rambo's high school coach said he would be facing a four-game suspension for consuming brownies that contained marijuana during spring break, but Rambo submitted an appeal, and the result of that is not publicly known.
"I'm not going to update anything other than we know that Sanders Commings has a two-game suspension," Richt said at SEC media days. "Anything else, we'll let you know sooner or later."
Rambo was not available for any interviews during preseason camp last year, fueling speculation that he had been suspended, and Richt did not announce his suspension until after he sat the 35-21 opening loss to Boise State in Atlanta.
4. Where will John Theus wind up?
The Parade and USA Today All-America offensive lineman is expected to get a crack at one of the starting tackle spots, which are occupied currently by Kenarious Gates and Kolton Houston.
Gates has the most experience up front, having started three games at guard as a freshman and nine last season. Houston never played in 2011 due to an unspecified NCAA violation, but coaches said the redshirt sophomore had the most success this spring in fending off the edge rushers.
If Theus can't crack the starting lineup at tackle, he could get a chance at guard, where Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee are the starters.
5. Will Malcolm Mitchell shine as a two-way star?
Mitchell's move to cornerback this spring never got viewed publicly, because he was a hamstring victim by the G-Day game, too.
Though he amassed 45 receptions for 665 yards and four touchdowns last season as a freshman receiver, Mitchell is expected to spend an overwhelming majority of his time at cornerback the first two or three games. Richt said Mitchell could have a 50-50 split in playing receiver and corner by midseason, and that's when Bulldogs coaches and fans alike will start tracking his play count.
"Early in the year, he'll be able to play only so many plays because of the heat," Richt said. "As the weather cools, if 60 is the amount of plays he can play effectively early in the year, then maybe he can get to 80 or 90 plays. When Champ Bailey played both ways, after the first few games he averaged over a hundred plays a game, but I don't know if Malcolm can handle that many."
Contact David Paschall at firstname.lastname@example.org or 423-757-6524.