ATHENS -- Clemson has loomed in the background this month for the Georgia football team. No one needed to be told who the Bulldogs play first, but the emphasis has been on position battles, installing plays and schemes and other inward matters.
This week, it becomes about Clemson.
Georgia on Wednesday night will hold its final preseason scrimmage, which it refers to as a practice game for the season opener. And practices will be geared around the game plan for the Tigers.
That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are beyond some internal matters. As it begins its next-to-last week of practice before the trip to Death Valley, here are the issues that still appear unsettled, in descending order of importance:
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Health of the secondary
If there was one area Georgia didn’t need a rash of injuries, it was the secondary, but they have had no such luck. It was already a problem before preseason practices started, thanks to the one-game suspension to Josh Harvey-Clemons (a safety-outside linebacker) and season-ending injury to freshman cornerback Reggie Wilkerson, projected to get a lot of playing time.
But then the preseason began, and seemingly every day there was a new injury. Starting free safety Tray Matthews has been limited for two weeks by a shoulder injury, and Corey Moore, who figured to see a lot of time at strong safety, has been out awhile with a lingering knee injury. Another strong safety, Shaquille Fluker, has been slowed by a strained lower back, and cornerback Sheldon Dawson bruised his knee.
None of the players, except possibly for Moore, seem to be in any danger of missing the opener. But given the up-tempo Clemson offense, the Bulldogs needed to spend as much time as possible getting their young secondary ready.
Head coach Mark Richt has become worried.
“We just haven’t had enough healthy guys to really become as good as we can be,” Richt said after Friday’s practice.
Right side of the offensive line
Speaking of injuries, starting right guard Chris Burnette (shoulder surgery) has been brought along slowly this preseason, after sitting out the spring. The coaches don’t appear concerned that Burnette won’t be at full strength, but it’s a good bet he gets some rest at Clemson.
The big intrigue, however, is at right tackle, where Kolton Houston remains a factor after finally gaining his NCAA eligibility. Sophomore John Theus started every game there last year, but as of late last week, the coaches were still calling this battle a toss-up.
Floyd vs. DeLoach
When the preseason began, James DeLoach had a firm hold on one outside linebacker spot, the one opposite budding star Jordan Jenkins. But it wasn’t a thumb injury that caused DeLoach’s starting spot to be less secure.
It was Leonard Floyd, the freshman who spent last year at prep school and has been singled out for praise several times by Richt. At a minimum, Floyd, a former Dodge County standout, will draw snaps away from DeLoach, now it’s just a matter of how many.
Moore, Fluker and senior Connor Norman have been in a three-way battle to start in place of Harvey-Clemons. Moore and Fluker might be the ones on scholarship, but their injuries haven’t helped.
Norman, who walked on three years ago, looks poised to once again see a lot of playing time, as coaches rely on his experience and knowledge of the defensive system.
Senior defensive end Garrison Smith remains the only player who is near-certain to start and see a lot of playing time. It’s well-established that five or six more players will rotate in. But who else will get a lot of snaps?
Keep an eye on John Taylor, a redshirt freshman who has a very high ceiling. Junior Mike Thornton should also get a lot of snaps, and junior college transfer Toby Johnson is an intriguing talent. Sterling Bailey, Ray Drew, Chris Mayes and John Atkins also still have a chance to fight for snaps.
Never mind the place-kicking situation. Richt knows whether Marshall Morgan is suspended will play, he’s just not telling. (t will surprise no one if walk-on Adam Erickson is kicking off and trying place-kicks against Clemson.
The unresolved issues around the team focus on who will return punts and kicks. It will be a rotation of three or four names at both spots, with Malcolm Mitchell involved in both. Tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have been mentioned for kickoffs, the question there is whether the team will pull the trigger on that intriguing possibility.