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March 9, 2011

Dawg days of spring are big for Georgia

This is an important spring for coach Mark Richt and his Georgia Bulldogs.

The Bulldogs are coming off a 6-7 season, their first losing record since a 5-6 mark in 1996, which was Jim Donnan's first season. Last season was capped by an inept offensive performance in a 10-6 loss to UCF in the Liberty Bowl. The problem for Richt is that he lost the best player from his offense (WR A.J. Green) and the best player from his defense (LB Justin Houston).

Still, this is Georgia and that means there is talent on hand; it's up to Richt and his staff to coax that talent to the fore. Plus, there are reinforcements on the horizon, thanks to a class that ranked fifth in the nation in this recruiting cycle. But relying on true freshmen will get you beat in the SEC, so that means that some holdovers who haven't necessarily produced will be on the spot this spring to prove they can be counted upon this fall.

This will be the second season using a 3-4 scheme on defense, but while the front three and back four look fine, there are some question marks at linebacker. There also are question marks offensively at tailback and wide receiver.

The SEC East looks to be wide open. South Carolina is the defending division champ, but can the Gamecocks really repeat? Florida and Tennessee have as many questions -- if not more -- than Georgia, and Kentucky and Vanderbilt remain Kentucky and Vanderbilt. Thus, it's important that Georgia answers some questions this spring.

Here's a look at the Bulldogs as they prepare to open spring drills.

GEORGIA AT-A-GLANCE
This is a big spring for Mark Richt.
THE BASICS
Coach: Mark Richt
Last season: 6-7 overall, 3-5 in the SEC East. Lost 10-6 to UCF in the Liberty Bowl.
Spring dates: March 10-April 16.
RETURNING STARTERS
(minimum seven starts last season)
Offense (6): TE Orson Charles, TB Washaun Ealey, G Cordy Glenn (moving to T), C Ben Jones, QB Aaron Murray, T Trinton Sturdivant.
Defense (8): CB Brandon Boykin, CB Sanders Commings, E Abry Jones, FS Bacarri Rambo, ILB Christian Robinson, CB Branden Smith, NT DeAngelo Tyson, OLB/E Cornelius Washington.
Special teams (2): P Drew Butler, K Blair Walsh.
Positions of strength

QB Aaron Murray was good as a redshirt freshman last season and should be more comfortable in the offense this season. He has a nice arm and is mobile. Orson Charles, his high school teammate at Tampa Plant, has a chance to be one of the most productive tight ends in the nation. The secondary returns numerous key players who should be comfortable in their second year in the 3-4 scheme. K Blair Walsh and P Drew Butler might be the best kicking duo in the nation. Assuming everyone stays healthy, the offensive line should at least be solid. Ts Trinton Sturdivant and Cordy Glenn, who is moving from guard, and C Ben Jones have the potential to contend for all-league honors. There is a new line coach; Will Friend arrives from UAB to replace Texas-bound Stacy Searels.

Help is needed

Who's the tailback? Holdovers Washaun Ealey and Caleb King have talent, but they also have issues, both on the field and off. True freshman Isaiah Crowell is highly touted, but he doesn't arrive until the summer. Can Ealey and/or King make any kind of strong spring impression? There is no proven go-to receiver on the roster. A.J. Green is gone, as is second-leading receiver Kris Durham. This is a big spring for junior WRs Tavarres King and Marlon Brown, who have a combined 60 career catches (or three more than Green had last season). Charles is good, but you don't want your tight end to be your go-to guy. The linebacking corps could be a problem. Justin Houston (10 sacks) left for the pros a year early, and he was the Bulldogs' best linebacker last season. The defensive line struggled with the adjustment to the 3-4, and some playmakers must emerge there this spring. JC transfer Johnathan Jenkins, who could start at nose tackle, doesn't arrive until the summer.

3 guys to watch

G Kenarious Gates: With Glenn's move to tackle, both guard spots are open and Gates will be given every chance to win one of the jobs. He played in six games and made three starts last season as a true freshman. He has excellent size (6-5/307) and could become a big-time road-grader in the running game.

WR Tavarres King: King is the Bulldogs' leading returning receiver, but he has just 47 career receptions, with four TDs. He's the most likely candidate to be the go-to receiver in Green's absence, but can he make the jump from third option to the guy? If he can't, the passing attack could suffer.

ILB Alec Ogletree: Ogletree, a four-star prospect, started the last four games at strong safety as a true freshman last season, but coaches have decided to move him to inside linebacker, where the Bulldogs are desperate for a playmaker. Ogletree runs well and delivers a blow. Ogletree, who is 6-3, played at 224 pounds last season and can be expected to add five to 10 pounds without losing much speed.

The pressure is on

WR Marlon Brown: Brown was a big-time recruit out of Memphis in 2009 (he's the guy whose grandmother was, uh, peeved at then-Tennessee coach Lane Kiffin during Brown's recruitment). But he's entering his junior season with only 13 career catches. He wasted his freshman season, playing eight games and making just two receptions. This spring, though, it's time for him to start living up to the hype. He's never going to be a big-time deep threat, but his size (6-5/220) means he could become an effective possession receiver who is a weapon on third down and in the red zone. If he doesn't produce this spring, he risks being passed on the depth chart by a number of younger receivers this fall.

The buzz

By himself, Murray makes Georgia dangerous offensively. But it sure would be nice if some playmakers could emerge go help him out. On National Signing Day, coach Mark Richt made reference to Crowell and the first carry in the season opener. If that's not a shot across the bow of both Ealey and King, what is? Those two guys need to show something this spring. So do Brown and King -- and two or three other receivers. Again, outside of Murray and three returning starters along the offensive line, there are questions about this offense. The defense has questions, too, most notably at linebacker. It surely would ease coordinator Todd Grantham's mind if Ogletree can make the move to linebacker without problems. Finding a pass rusher to replace Houston also is vital. All in all, this is a big spring in Athens.

Mike Huguenin is the college sports editor for Rivals.com. He can be reached at mhuguenin@rivals.com.


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