Georgia quarterback Aaron Murray will not be able to rely on protection this season from left tackle Trinton Sturdivant, who tore his right ACL during spring practice. University of Georgia Photo
The combination of a 6-7 finish last football season and a 2011 signing class hailed as the "Dream Team" could lead to an entertaining month of preseason practices at the University of Georgia.
While there are plenty of returning players firmly entrenched as starters -- such as quarterback Aaron Murray, offensive linemen Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones, cornerback Brandon Boykin and specialists Blair Walsh and Drew Butler -- there are positions for the taking for some newcomers. Tailback Isaiah Crowell, receiver Malcolm Mitchell and outside linebacker Ray Drew are three freshmen with a chance at starting roles, and there is substantial room for depth throughout the roster.
With practice set to get under way Thursday, here are five questions facing the Bulldogs as they begin camp with an eye on that Sept. 3 opener against Boise State in Atlanta.
1. Will Crowell be the real deal?
The 5-foot-11, 210-pounder from Columbus was rated by ESPN as the No. 1 tailback nationally in the 2011 class, and his accompanying hype is even more magnified because of last year's losing season. Crowell will be scrutinized in upcoming days and weeks as he tries to change a depth chart currently headed by Richard Samuel, who was an inside linebacker this time last month.
"We don't expect Isaiah to save the program," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said. "We don't expect Isaiah to put the team on his back. We expect him to learn what to do and to do things the Georgia way."
Richt admits he's every bit as eager to see Crowell as he was in 2008 with receiver A.J. Green, who was the fourth overall selection in April's NFL draft. He also hinted that there may be a little more pressure on Crowell, because a missed assignment as a receiver is not nearly as devastating as a tailback whiffing a pass assignment.
"When a running back makes a mistake, it's not good," Richt said.
2. Can the offensive line stay healthy?
At SEC media days last month, Richt gave as upbeat an assessment as possible about the offensive line, considering the circumstances.
"I think it's fine if we don't get anybody hurt," he said.
The losses of Trinton Sturdivant (ACL injury), A.J. Harmon (transferred to Alabama State) and Brent Benedict (transferred to Virginia Tech) have left the Bulldogs with three fewer tackles than they had at the start of spring practice. Jones and Glenn are all-conference candidates, guards Chris Burnette and Kenarious Gates are plenty competent and right tackle Justin Anderson had a combined 12 starts in the '08-09 seasons.
Behind those starters are youth, youth and more youth.
"We had six freshmen come in, and they've been working really hard," Jones said. "I can't wait to see how they are in pads, because they've put in a lot of time doing drills and everything. We only play five at a time, and as long as we have five healthy guys, I think we'll be fine."
3. Will Murray continue to improve?
Murray was the clear-cut choice for preseason All-SEC quarterback, but he starts preseason camp without the luxury of Green at receiver. Defenses continually adjusted last season to account for Green, and the Bulldogs were 1-3 in the games in which he sat out because of an NCAA suspension.
Tight end Orson Charles is a rising star and could be that first option for Murray, who insists that this year's offense is ahead of last year's unit from a discipline and dedication standpoint.
"Murray is definitely ready," Jones said. "He's not going to skip a beat. It's nice to have your quarterback, because at first you're taking care of him but now he's taking care of us and keeping us calm. That's nice to have in the huddle."
4. How much impact will the newcomers have?
Crowell and Mitchell have excellent opportunities for significant time once the season starts, and there may be even more chances on defense. Drew could assume the pass-rushing role at outside linebacker held last season by Justin Houston, and there are opportunities for all sorts of playing time due to depth issues at linebacker and in the secondary.
"When we open up camp, it's an open competition," second-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "The first couple of weeks will be about developing the freshmen and how we can filter in those guys with the ones we've got to give us the best chance to win.
"If it's a freshman then it's a freshman, and if not it will be somebody else."
5. Can the nose position be dominant?
Georgia was vulnerable at the point of attack at times last season without the presence of a relentless nose in the 3-4 system. That may have changed this spring with the emergence of redshirt sophomore Kwame Geathers, who was named defensive MVP of the 15 workouts, and Geathers now is joined by Mississippi Gulf Coast Community College transfer Jonathan Jenkins.
The 6-4, 345-pound Jenkins has been getting a lot of praise from his new teammates during summer workouts, and he may occupy the largest No. 6 jersey in college football history.
"He tells me how he used to tote the rock in high school," Boykin said. "He's pretty athletic, so I'm looking forward to seeing what he can do."
David Paschall is a sports writer for the Times Free Press. He started at the Chattanooga Free Press in 1990 and was part of the Times Free Press when the paper started in 1999. David covers University of Georgia football, as well as SEC football recruiting, SEC basketball, Chattanooga Lookouts baseball and other sports stories. He is a Chattanooga native and graduate of the Baylor School and Auburn University. David has received numerous honors for ...