Returning talent, new coaches excite UGA's Mark Richt

Returning talent, new coaches excite UGA's Mark Richt

March 6th, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia head coach Mark Richt watches from the sidelines.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Georgia football coach Mark Richt has spring fever, and for a variety of reasons.

The Bulldogs suffered a dreary ending to their 2013 season with a Gator Bowl loss to Nebraska on New Year's Day, but 17 of Georgia's 22 starters from the bowl are back. The large number of returning players is accompanied by four new assistant coaches, which is the highest such total since Richt assembled his inaugural staff in 2001.

All of the staff changes occurred on the defensive side, with Jeremy Pruitt serving as the new coordinator after occupying the same role for Florida State's national title team.

"I'm really just more excited to watch spring practice than anything," Richt said. "I really feel like we have two tremendous coordinators with staff members who are highly motivated and competent, and we have players who are going to be excited to learn and compete. I think it's going to be great, and I'm curious to see how the special-teams changes affect us.

"I think it will be good for us in that regard as well."

Richt has split the coordinating of special teams between tight ends coach John Lilly and new inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler, though most every other assistant will help out as well.

Georgia will start spring practice on March 18, with the G-Day spring game set for April 12. The Bulldogs will hold two more practices after G-Day and have scheduled their 15th and final workout for April 17.

Todd Gurley has not been able to go full speed during offseason drills, as the junior tailback remains bothered by the ankle injury he suffered last September against LSU.

"My guess is that unless he's completely healed by March 18, there will be some modification to what he's doing," Richt said.

The biggest objective for Georgia's offense this spring will be replacing three starters on the line. Left tackle Kenarious Gates and guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee combined for 109 career starts, leaving senior center David Andrews and junior tackle John Theus as the most experienced up front.

Theus will get first crack at left tackle, Richt said, with Kolton Houston the leader at right tackle. Vying at guard will be Mark Beard, Watts Dantzler, Brandon Kublanow and Greg Pyke.

"It's going to be a little different, but we're very close," Andrews said. "We all hang out with each other outside of football, and I think it will be exciting to get some new faces in there."

Defensively, the Bulldogs are eager to move on from a season in which they allowed 30 or more points a program-record eight times under former coordinator Todd Grantham. Georgia played well defensively for the most part against Nebraska but also busted coverage in allowing a 99-yard touchdown pass.

Grantham left in January for the same job with Louisville but was quickly replaced by Pruitt.

"A lot of guys are excited and are ready to get into football mode and start learning the system," senior cornerback Damian Swann said. "We're ready to play for a guy who's been there before and has won some championships. A lot of guys are excited for a new start."

Georgia also returns its specialists, with junior kicker Marshall Morgan having ended last season by making made a school-record 17 straight field-goal attempts. Tennessee's Fuad Reveiz set the SEC record for consecutive field goals with 18 in 1984.

The most curious storyline to Georgia's spring is expected to be the effect Pruitt and the other new assistants have on the defense.

"I just think these guys are about fundamentals and lining up and knowing what to do and getting after it," Richt said. "They're kind of old school, and I think that's what is going to be going on around here and emphasized. I think our players are going to respond to it."

Odds and ends

Sophomore J.J. Green, who started twice at tailback last season and rushed for 129 yards at Tennessee, has moved to cornerback. ... Junior Quayvon Hicks, who made six starts at fullback last season, will work at tight end this spring. ... Two outside linebackers from the 2012 class, Josh Dawson and James DeLoach, have moved to defensive end.

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