published Friday, August 1st, 2014

Georgia aiming again at SEC East title

Georgia running back Todd Gurley (3) takes a break during a timeout against South Carolina.
Georgia running back Todd Gurley (3) takes a break during a timeout against South Carolina.
Photo by Associated Press /Chattanooga Times Free Press.

Georgia's football team will begin preseason camp today with the same primary objective as always under 14th-year coach Mark Richt: winning the Southeastern Conference's East Division for the right to play for the league championship.

The Bulldogs have won five East titles in Richt's tenure, more than any other divisional foe during the same stretch. Georgia was picked second in the East to South Carolina at SEC media days last month and was tabbed 12th nationally by coaches Thursday in the USA Today preseason poll.

"I'm not happy to be named No. 2," Richt said at media days. "I'm not going to start cheering that we're No. 2. I think in the end that it's going to be Georgia."

Plenty of offensive weapons return for the Bulldogs, including junior tailback Todd Gurley, who was hampered by injuries last season but has yet to be slowed by an opponent. Also back is fifth-year senior quarterback Hutson Mason, who made two starts late last season after the prolific Aaron Murray suffered a knee injury.

Georgia's biggest questions are on defense, where three returning secondary starters who had eligibility remaining are no longer in the program for new coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

"You really never had them anyway," Pruitt said earlier this week. "We're just going to coach the ones we've got."

1. Can a quality defense develop?

Safety Josh Harvey-Clemons was dismissed from the program in February, and safety Tray Matthews and cornerback Shaq Wiggins were post-spring departures.

Defensive lineman Jon Taylor was booted last week following a felony arrest on aggravated assault, so Pruitt and his three new defensive assistants have been challenged from the start.

"I don't know what went on here last year," Pruitt said. "Everybody had a chance to start over. To me it's not losses. We've got the guys we've got, and that's what we're going to go with."

Pruitt has been pleased with those who have behaved and remain. He said every defensive lineman has lost at least 10 to 15 pounds and that junior outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins has gone from 270 to 250.

2. Will the secondary see Green?

Sophomore J.J. Green filled in admirably at tailback last season when Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall were injured, rushing for 384 yards and 5.6 yards per carry. He was moved to cornerback this spring and earned a starting role in Georgia's nickel package, but an injury kept him from showing his skills at the G-Day game.

Secondary is Georgia's biggest area of concern, so how Green fares in camp will be key.

Other players new to the mix are Reggie Wilkerson, who redshirted last year after an injury, and freshman Dominick Sanders. They will work at safety.

Rico Johnson, who signed in February as a receiver, and junior college transfer Shattle Fenteng will work at cornerback.

3. Will the offensive line be special?

Senior center David Andrews is the only offensive lineman certain to start at his position, but offensive coordinator Mike Bobo has seen enough to know this is a promising bunch.

"I feel really good about where we are there," Bobo said. "We've got some maturity, and we've got some leadership. We may be more athletic than we've been in the past, but we've still got to go out there and do it."

Now it's a matter of assembling the parts.

John Theus will practice at left tackle and right tackle, and Kolton Houston will work at left guard and right tackle. Greg Pyke is the leader at right guard, while Brandon Kublanow will vie for a guard spot and Mark Beard will compete at tackle.

4. Can the walking wounded return effectively?

When the 2013 season ended, tailback Marshall, receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tight end Jay Rome were all on the shelf. Most had been there for at least a couple of months.

Now all of them are eager to return, though Scott-Wesley is not fully recovered from his torn ACL and has to sit out the Clemson opener due to a marijuana-related suspension.

"They feel good, and they're all anxious to get out there and go again and show what they can do," Bobo said. "We've just got to be mindful of all of them when we're practicing."

5. Can Gurley get to the season better than ever?

Gurley's health last season peaked on his first carry, a 75-yard touchdown run at Clemson that included a hamstring tweak. There would be ankle and hip injuries later in the season and conditioning woes that accompanied a monthlong layoff.

"We're going to be smart about the things we put him through," Bobo said. "We'll challenge him like we did in the spring, and we like where he's at right now."

Contact David Paschall at dpaschall@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6524.

about David Paschall...

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 ...

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