Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and seven other former starters who are likely to be in NFL camps this summer are gone, leaving Georgia with nine big holes to fill on its defense.
Coach Mark Richt, however, was hardly concerned after the Bulldogs began spring practice on Saturday.
“We're going to have depth,” Richt said. “A lot of it will be inexperienced, but I don't see a lot of difference between our No. 1s and No. 2s. I can see us doing things by committee, especially in that front seven.
Richt says that Georgia, which was ranked No. 5 in the final Associated Press poll, can withstand the departure of so many starters because of strong recruiting classes over the last couple of years.
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An All-American linebacker like Jones is hard to replace, but Richt already projects that defensive end Garrison Smith and cornerback Damian Swann will emerge as leaders.
Richt added that linebackers Jordan Jenkins and James DeLoach, defensive linemen John Taylor and Mike Thornton and cornerback Devin Bowman are ready to take on more responsibility from coordinator Todd Grantham.
“We've got to see where everybody belongs,” Richt said. “Coach Grantham always says he's going to find the best 11 for the situation in the game you're playing or the formation you're playing or the down and distance you're playing.”
Some of Georgia's new players stood out to Richt during the windy, 2-hour workout that included some sleet and temperatures in the low 40s.
Junior college transfers Johnathan Atkins and Chris Mayes, a pair of linemen, seemed to be in excellent shape. Freshman safety Tray Matthews, one of seven early enrollees on defense, took some snaps with the first-team unit. Another defensive back, Quincy Mauger, likewise impressed the head coach.
Linemen Ray Drew, Atkins and Mayes will compete with Taylor and Thornton for the snaps taken last season by Kwame Geathers, Abry Jones and John Jenkins, a potential high NFL draft pick.
The line is overseen by new position coach Chris Wilson, who arrived from Mississippi State after Rodney Garner left for Auburn.
Jenkins and Amarlo Herrera, the most experienced linebackers, started a combined 15 games last season. Jenkins finished second on the team to Jones with five sacks. Herrera is the leading returning tackler.
Grantham has already begun cross-training outside linebackers to play occasionally as down linemen and to drop into coverage against tight ends and slot receivers.
“Over the last 28 games, we probably had 24 different starting lineups, mixing and matching and doing those things,” Grantham said. “We've got some guys that have been here for a while and it's their turn to show what they can do and we've got guys that came in mid-year.”
The coaching staff will take a long look at rising sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons, a former five-star recruit from Valdosta who spent most of his first season on special teams. Harvey-Clemons' 6-foot-5 frame carries just 207 pounds, so Georgia is using him primarily at safety.
“He's relatively stout on contact even though he looks tall and rangy, which he is and doesn't look super thick, but there's something to him,” Richt said. “When he strikes, he actually holds up pretty good.”
In the secondary, Swann's four interceptions were a team high, but the Bulldogs must replace Sanders Commings, Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams.
Safeties Corey Moore and Connor Norman have played in a combined 28 games with three starts. Marc Deas will be in the mix, too.
Sheldon Dawson will compete with Bowman at cornerback.
Notes: TBs Keith Marshall and Brandon Harton are out for the first two weeks of spring practice with minor injuries. Richt confirmed that WR coach Tony Ball turned down a job offer this week with Tennessee to return for his eighth season with Georgia.