Georgia Bulldogs' defense a key focus of spring

photo Georgia safety Josh Harvey-Clemons pressures Ole Miss.
photo Georgia receiver Malcolm Mitchell catches a pass against Ole Miss.

The Georgia Bulldogs were 5 yards short of winning last season's Southeastern Conference football championship and replacing Alabama as the league hope for a seventh consecutive national title.

Now they're back to square one.

After a 12-2 season that culminated with a victory over Nebraska in the Capital One Bowl, the Bulldogs will open spring practice this morning in Athens. This is the 13th year Mark Richt will head the assembly process, and plans will start from the ground up instead of determining what to try in the waning moments next time against the Crimson Tide.

"The things I'm most concerned about as head coach are making sure that fundamentally we're teaching the game of football to them," Richt said. "I want to make sure these guys truly understand how to tackle properly and how to run the ball properly and how to make contact properly on both sides of the ball for safety.

"It's a great time of the year to work on fundamentals, and I also want to see competition at everybody's position. I want everybody to prove that they can play for Georgia."

With 10 starters back offensively at Georgia but only four returning on defense, here are five spring storylines to follow:

1. Defensive shakeout

Third-year coordinator Todd Grantham sounded far more eager than concerned this past week when discussing his unit's prospects. Georgia lost 11 defenders who had at least 15 career starts and a 12th -- noseguard Kwame Geathers -- who had seven, but Grantham prefers to look at the experience of the returning players.

"We have eight or nine starters back on defense that played in games last year," he said. "When you're losing the number that we lost and you have that many guys coming back, what that says is that you played a lot of guys. We've got some guys who have been here a while, and it's their turn to show what they can do.

"I think you need to learn how to win a position before you learn how to win a ballgame."

Defensive end Garrison Smith, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera and cornerback Damian Swann are entrenched as starters, but the other seven spots are up for grabs.

2. Welcome to Athens

Georgia has a record 13 early enrollees, which will make for a lot of youthful energy and youthful mistakes in the upcoming weeks.

Tray Matthews could have an instant impact at safety, while Johnathan Atkins and Chris Mayes will be looking to do the same on the defensive front. It will be tougher to break through offensively, but receiver J.J. Green could get some reps at backup tailback with Keith Marshall out for a couple of weeks with a pulled hamstring.

"All these midyear guys will get thrown out there, and they will struggle," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "They will wonder to themselves why they left school to come here early and subject themselves. They're probably already doing that after mat drills, but it's going to benefit them come fall.

"When the other guys roll in here, these guys are going to have a huge head start and an understanding, and when practice starts, they're going to line up and compete instead of just learning and being lost out there."

3. Mitchell staying put

Junior Malcolm Mitchell tried to be a two-way player last season, but his focus now is solely on receiver.

"We want Malcolm to become one of the best receivers he can be, which may be one of the better receivers in America, we hope," Richt said.

Mitchell had 40 catches for 572 yards and four touchdowns last season after amassing 45 for 665 and four scores as a freshman. As a cornerback early last season, he tallied 12 tackles, three pass deflections and a fumble recovery.

4. Share and share alike

The Bulldogs have five scholarship quarterbacks -- Aaron Murray, Hutson Mason, Christian LeMay, Faton Bauta and early enrollee Brice Ramsey. Throw in walk-ons Parker Welch and Greg Bingham, and Bobo has quite the crowded meeting room.

"We're going to have to be creative in how we get them reps," Bobo said. "We've got some experience with Murray and Mason and even Parker Welch, but you don't want to say they've got it down and not work them. We need to make sure they get work while still bringing along the young guys and create some depth there, too.

"It's going to be a situation we're going to have to work through."

5. Mixing and matching

Josh Harvey-Clemons was a five-star prospect according to and in the 2012 signing class, and he had 14 tackles and a tackle for loss as a freshman. The 6-foot-5, 207-pounder played mostly safety last season but worked his share at outside linebacker, too.

"He's going to play multiple spots," Richt said. "He's just one of those guys who can play safety or outside linebacker, and we think he can rush the passer. He's a very talented guy, and some of the reasons we want to play him at more than one spot is because you play more than one style of offense."

Said Grantham: "We certainly feel no different now than when we recruited Josh. He's long and athletic and has a skill set that not many people have with his size."

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