ATHENS, Ga. — It has been three weeks since Georgia started preseason practice, and the grueling pace is starting to wear on the players.
It’s not that the Bulldogs are easing up. They’re getting tired of tackling each other.
“I think we’re just ready to play somebody else,” quarterback Joe Cox said. “You come out of camp, and it’s kind of a relief, but you’re really still in it. You just have school to go along with it.”
A year ago, Georgia was already into the game-planning phase for its opener, but this August, the team has an additional week to prepare for its first game of the season against Oklahoma State.
On the positive side, it’s an extra week to get ready for what promises to be one of Georgia’s toughest opening opponents in years. The downside, however, is that all the reps in practice are starting to get a little dull.
“We’re ready to hit that phase where we’re game-planning and worrying about other teams and going other places rather than just coming out and doing the same things every day,” Cox said.
But after three weeks of the most grueling preseason for senior Jeff Owens, the extra week of practice time isn’t so much about preparation as it is about rejuvenation.
“This extra week will help guys get their legs back up under them,” Owens said. “I think we can just go out and work on our fundamentals and get better, make sure everyone knows the scheme of the defense.”
Mark Richt offered a ringing endorsement to sophomore Richard Samuel on Friday, saying the tailback was firmly atop Georgia’s depth chart. But while Samuel hopes to approach the 1,400 rushing yards compiled by Knowshon Moreno a year ago, the plan for replacing the 33 receptions and nearly 400 receiving yards Moreno added is still likely to be a committee approach.
“I think we’re kind of going to pull from everybody to get certain aspects of what Knowshon did,” Cox said. “Richard’s a hard runner, kind of a bruiser, and he gets open, but it’s not like he has incredible ball skills.”
Samuel caught just two passes for 11 yards as a freshman, numbers likely to increase with additional playing time this season. Still, fellow tailbacks Caleb King and Carlton Thomas are better known for their abilities as receivers and are likely to play in that role.
“A guy like Caleb or Carlton, they have really smooth hands,” Cox said. “I’m not saying we’re not going to throw the ball to Richard, but I definitely think we’ll be using them rather than expecting Richard to run every down and catch every ball we throw to the backs.”
Senior defensive end Marcus Washington returned to practice Saturday after missing two days because of illness. Sophomore linebacker Marcus Dowtin worked out with the team, too, but in a green, non-contact jersey. Dowtin had missed nearly a week with strep throat.
“He’s made enough progress for us to believe he’ll be back Monday,” Richt said.
The two illnesses were enough to warrant quick medical attention for both players, but it’s a scenario Richt said his training staff has been preparing for since the spring.
With the outbreak of the H1N1 virus — better known as the swine flu — Richt said trainer Ron Courson and his staff have been quick to diagnose flu symptoms and isolate players who may be ill.
Last season, Georgia entered the year with its best preseason ranking, players on the cover of Sports Illustrated and a ton of hype surrounding the team. The result was a disappointing 10-3 season in which the Bulldogs never came close to meeting lofty expectations.
This year, Oklahoma State — Georgia’s opening opponent — is on the Sports Illustrated cover and gaining national attention. While Cox isn’t ready to call that an advantage for his side, he is aware of the perils of too much preseason publicity.
“I don’t know how much of an advantage it will be,” Cox said. “They might feed off of it. I just know it wasn’t the best thing for us, or at least it didn’t turn out to be last year. I like the way we’re ranked. I like being in an underdog situation. I think it made us work harder this offseason, and we’ll see how it affected them when we play them.”