What to watch from Georgia preseason

semerson@macon.comJuly 31, 2013 

ATHENS -- Aaron Murray, who is beginning his fourth and final season as Georgia’s quarterback, is hoping there’s something to the idea of gradual statistical improvement ... especially when it comes to the most important stat.

“I mean, 6-7, 10-4, 12-2. If we keep getting better at this rate, it’s gonna be a pretty special year,” Murray said.

The Georgia football team basically has been preparing for this season since the painful final moments of December’s SEC championship game. There was the matter of a bowl game, which it won, and now the Bulldogs begin practice in similar position to last year -- as potential national championship contenders.

The preseason coaches poll is due to be released Thursday, and Georgia is likel to be in the top 10. The Bulldogs have experience on offense, led by Murray and several other skill position stars. They have questions on the offensive line and a young and inexperienced defense. But after a relatively quiet offseason, head coach Mark Richt feels good about the makeup of his team as it begins practice.

“Just real pleased with the culture of this football team,” Richt said. “I think it’s very healthy when it comes to work, when it comes to trust, when it comes to team. I think we’re in a really good place.”

As practice begins, here are the five percolating issues that bear the most watching during the next month:

1. Kolton Houston and the offensive line

This is already multi-layered muddle before Houston was reinstated last week. Most likely Houston won’t start, but Richt says the junior is ready to play, so that makes about nine candidates to see time.

There are only two guaranteed starting spots: center David Andrews and right guard Chris Burnette. The key to it all might be the two men at right tackle: sophomores Xzavier Ward and John Theus. If Ward plays well enough, he can win the right tackle job, which would push Theus to left tackle, unless he doesn’t play well enough.

But the other question is how much the team will actually rotate during games. Will the Bulldogs go eight or nine deep, as the coaches say, or will the top five ultimately play most of the game? That may not be known until Aug. 31 at Clemson.

2. Special teams

The first order of business is finding a replacement for place-kicker Marshall Morgan, who is likely to be suspended one or two games for an offseason arrest, although Richt hasn’t announced anything yet. Walk-ons Adam Erickson, Patrick Beless and Thomas Pritchard each made a field goal on G-Day this year.

But the team also needs to figure out who will be returning punts and kicks, having not done much of that during the spring. Star tailback Todd Gurley could go back to returning kickoffs, but receiver Justin Scott-Wesley is also an intriguing option. Punt return duties are wide open, with cornerback Damian Swann and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Rhett McGowan all having experience.

3. Replacing Harvey-Clemons

Before his one-game suspension, Josh Harvey-Clemons was set to play the critical nickel-back spot -- a hybrid linebacker-safety -- in the opener. Now Swann seems the favorite to play it at Clemson, with Harvey-Clemons taking back over after that. The Bulldogs could also try freshmen Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins.

The Bulldogs also have to find a replacement at strong safety, Harvey-Clemons’ spot in the base 3-4 defense. Georgia likely will use the 4-2-5 most of the game against Clemson. Senior Connor Norman and junior Corey Moore are the most experienced, but junior college transfer Shaq Fluker could catch up quickly.

4. Health of the receivers

Junior Michael Bennett was expected to be fully healthy by the summer, after ACL surgery in October. The real test will be how he handles contact in the preseason, unless the coaches keep him away from being hit.

Freshman Tramel Terry will begin practice in a limited role, still healing from ACL surgery in December. Terry’s goal is to play against both teams from his home state of South Carolina, but he’ll have to show a lot of improvement this month in order for that to happen.

5. The defensive line

New defensive line coach Chris Wilson came out of spring with about three nose tackles and four defensive ends who could play. But now Toby Johnson, himself recovering from an ACL injury, is on campus and a threat to play.

But John Taylor, a redshirt freshman, might be the one to watch. Right now Taylor isn’t listed as a first-teamer, but given his abilities, that might change by the end of the month. Taylor could play well enough to supplant Sterling Bailey or Ray Drew at defensive end. Or Taylor could end up moving back inside to nose tackle.

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