Five Georgia questions: Hutson Mason's, Todd Gurley's progress head list

Five Georgia questions: Hutson Mason's, Todd Gurley's progress head list

March 18th, 2014 by David Paschall in Sports - College

Georgia quarterback Hutson Mason warms up under the watchful eye of coach Mark Richt before the Georgia Tech game last November. Mason got an early start on succeeding Aaron Murray and hopes to build on that experience during spring practice.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

Georgia will open spring football practice this afternoon for a 14th time under coach Mark Richt.

Richt has a 126-45 record with the Bulldogs and has won at least 10 games on eight occasions, but that's not the chief reason for the excitement as the flowers start to bloom. The current anticipation among Bulldogs fans is the result of Richt's hiring of defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, who held the same position last season on Florida State's national championship team.

Georgia is moving on from last season's 8-5 finish, when Todd Grantham's youthful defense allowed 30 or more points a program-record eight times, but Richt is offering reminders about this time of year.

"Without question, spring is still going to be about teaching good fundamentals for safety purposes and for success," Richt said at a news conference earlier this month. "The better we can block and tackle, the better we'll have a chance to make our systems go. You could have a great scheme and poor tactics, and you're going to have no success.

"I would rather have less of a scheme and more tactics and more fundamentals, because I think we'll have a better chance of winning. That's what is happening right now."

That sentiment is being echoed by Pruitt.

"We're not as concerned right now with how much somebody can learn," Pruitt said. "We want to see who can get off blockers and who can tackle in space."

The Bulldogs will hold their G-Day spring game on April 12, which will serve as the 13th of their 15 allotted practices. Georgia's final spring workout will be April 17, and here are five questions that could get answered between now and then:

• 1. Can Hutson Mason show further development?

Mason took Georgia's quarterbacking reins sooner than expected when Aaron Murray suffered a season-ending knee injury last November.

Mason made his first start at Georgia Tech and rallied the Bulldogs from a 20-0 deficit to a 41-34 win in double overtime. His second start was not as memorable, as Georgia stumbled to a 24-19 loss to Nebraska in a rainy Gator Bowl on New Year's Day.

"He was already a confident kid, but that had to help to go out there and to have some success," Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo told reporters earlier this month. "At the same time, I think it made him realize there are still some things he has to work on to be a better quarterback and help us win games. He is stepping into something new as far as a leadership role.

"All the quarterbacks are leaders by nature of the position, but it's a little bit different when you're going in as the No. 1 guy in spring practice and throughout the offseason. It's something new for him, but he's grasping it well."

Georgia running back Todd Gurley has proven his talent but will be looking to re-establish his on-field dominance after a series of injuries in the 2013 season.

Photo by Associated Press/Times Free Press.

2. What's up with Todd Gurley?

The tailback's sophomore season started with a splash, as his first carry resulted in a 75-yard touchdown run at Clemson. He injured his thigh on that run and later dealt with more severe ankle and hip injuries, which led to conditioning woes as well.

Gurley was not full speed at offseason workouts and may not be 100 percent this spring, according to Richt, but Bobo wants to test his most imposing player.

"I've already talked to Todd about how we're going to push him in practice and that we expect him to go," Bobo said. "That's the only way you can get better, so we're going to treat him like anybody else. I expect him to get better at the little things and to give maximum effort. I believe he's at the point of his career, being a third-year guy, that he's got to step up and be a leader for this football team.

"He's not a big talker, but he can be a leader by his actions and how he practices, so that will be the big thing."

3. Who makes a move up front?

Senior center David Andrews and junior tackle John Theus are the two returning starters for offensive line coach Will Friend, though Kolton Houston did supplant Theus in the lineup early last season.

Theus is moving from right to left tackle, so Houston is the likely favorite for the other side. Mark Beard, Brian Kublanow, Greg Pyke and former Dalton High standout Watts Dantzler are in the running for the two starting guard spots.

"At the beginning, you're going to have some mixing and matching just to see what people can do," Andrews said. "Toward the end of spring, Coach Friend kind of likes to have an idea of five to seven or eight guys that he knows he can throw in there and that will be dependable. By G-Day, I think you'll see a group that he's kind of looking at as far as a starting five and a couple of extra rotating guys. We will definitely have to lock that down in camp."

4. Will the defense make notable strides?

Pruitt will be working with a defense that showed occasional flashes last season -- most notably the fourth quarter of the Auburn game until the Bulldogs allowed a miraculous 73-yard touchdown reception -- and has nine starters back.

Georgia had 10 starters returning until the recent dismissal of safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, who was largely responsible for Auburn's winning score. Pruitt spent his first weeks on the job recruiting but has gotten to know the returning talent in the days since.

"All the guys are eager," Pruitt said. "They've had a good offseason, and now it's the next step. It's spring practice, and it's time to find out what kind of football players they are."

5. Can the special-teams changes take hold?

Not long after hiring four new defensive assistants, Richt announced that special-teams duties would be split between tight ends coach John Lilly and new inside linebackers coach Mike Ekeler. Almost every other assistant will contribute as well, but Lilly and Ekeler are basically co-coordinators for the kicking game.

Georgia was a mixed bag of special teams last season, with kicker Marshall Morgan making his last 17 field-goal attempts but the Bulldogs ranking last in the SEC in punt returns and kickoff returns.

Punter certainly would seem up for grabs, with Adam Erickson having wrestled the job away from Collin Barber last November. Erickson is now a senior, with Barber a junior.

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