Georgia’s to-do list is narrowing

semerson@macon.comAugust 11, 2013 

uga_practice

Georgia head coach Mark Richt patrols the sideline during the Bulldogs’ first practice of the season.

BEAU CABELL — bcabell@macon.com

ATHENS -- The Georgia football practice fields were empty and quiet Sunday, the day before classes begin. The campus was alive with activity as students moved in and sororities got an early start on rush. But the football team had a day of rest, having reached the midpoint of preseason practice.

Technically, it’s only one-third over. But since the final third is full-tilt preparation for the opener at Clemson, Monday’s practice can be considered the second half of preseason mode: sorting out position battles and making other personnel decisions.

At this point, here is what has been resolved, or at least has come very close to that point:

1. Kenarious Gates at left tackle

The senior has all but been anointed the starter again, after some uncertainty heading into camp. Gates started all but two games at left tackle last year, spending the other two at guard. Entering this month, the question was whether someone else would emerge at left tackle, either shifting Gates back to guard, or to the bench.

But offensive line Will Friend all but said Gates would be the left tackle again, saying Saturday that Gates had performed the best of any lineman in practice. Gates dropped some weight to become more athletic and apparently has been using the mobility to his advantage.

There’s still plenty of questions whether Gates is a lock-down left tackle who can do a good job on, say, Jadeveon Clowney. But Gates clearly is the player the coaches have the most confidence in right now.

2. Damian Swann at the star position

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham isn’t exactly free-flowing with information, so sometimes you have to read the tea leaves. On Saturday, he was asked about the team’s star position (a hybrid of safety and linebacker) and who was most likely to play there while Josh Harvey-Clemons is suspended for the opener.

“Well you know Cinco has played it, so that kind of helps you there,” Grantham said.

He meant junior Damian Swann, No. 5 in your program, No. 1 on your depth chart at cornerback. The implication was clear: Swann is most likely to shift over to that role when Georgia is in the 4-2-5 alignment, which will be a lot against Clemson’s pass-happy offense.

3. Harvey-Clemons is important

Clearly Georgia can’t look past Clemson, but Grantham also has to get Harvey-Clemons ready for the following 11 games and whatever comes after that. Grantham was working with the sophomore in practice last week and compared Harvey-Clemons to Alec Ogletree, at least in terms of being able to be a run-and-pass defender in that star position.

“When we had Tree here, Tree could kind of do it, and you didn’t really need to have that (dime) package,” Grantham said. “With Josh being able to play his star position and those kinds of things, he can play in the box on the run because he’s a bigger, physical kid and he does that as a safety too.”

4. The newcomers in the secondary

Freshmen Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins have lived up to expectations that they will get key playing time. In fact, consider this: While free safety Tray Matthews should be the first true freshman to start the opener under Grantham, he might have company. If Georgia takes the field in a 4-2-5, Langley or Wiggins have a good shot to be the other starting cornerback, alongside starter Sheldon Dawson, with Swann at the star.

5. The defensive line

First-year assistant coach Chris Wilson doesn’t like to name any starters, but realistically senior Garrison Smith is still a first-team end, and there’s been no indication that junior Mike Thornton won’t be the first nose tackle. That hasn’t changed.

But Wilson has said he wants to substitute liberally, and while he said Saturday he feels good about “six or seven” linemen, he didn’t name them. They almost certainly include junior college transfer Toby Johnson, redshirt freshman John Taylor, junior Ray Drew and sophomore Sterling Bailey. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes (who is a sophomore) has been out with a concussion but is also likely to play.

Here are the biggest unsettled spots:

1. Place-kicker to start the season

Richt actually knows this, but he is playing coy with the media. Richt believes the uncertainty over whether Marshall Morgan is suspended or not provides a strategic advantage for the Clemson game.

Dubious or not, that apparently is why Richt is keeping the information tight.

If Morgan is suspended, walk-on Adam Erickson remains the favorite. Georgia didn’t release any kicking information from its first scrimmage, which was closed to the media, as the subterfuge continues.

2. Right tackle

Sophomore John Theus still hasn’t locked down the spot he started every game at last year, but now the main push is coming from junior Kolton Houston and not sophomore Xzavier Ward.

This could all be a motivational ploy by Friend, trying to get the ultra-talented Theus to take his game up a notch. But until Friend decrees that Theus is the guy again, it bears watching.

3. Strong safety

It started as a three-man competition and still appears that way. Senior walk-on Connor Norman, junior Corey Moore and junior college transfer Shaquille Fluker.

The latter has made a good impression in practice, as was expected, but it bears noting that Grantham listed Norman as one of the unofficial captains of the defense. On an inexperienced defense, it seems very likely Norman will at least continue to play snaps.

Harvey-Clemons will return to the starting strong safety role for the South Carolina game. But again, he will slide down to the star position in the 4-2-5, so the next man at strong safety will get a lot of time.

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