Georgia will take the field for its first practices of the new season Thursday. It will do so under the weight of some great expectations.
Despite the rather notable task of having to almost totally rebuild their defense, the Bulldogs were predicted by SEC media to repeat as the league’s Eastern Division champions and have been included in the top five of some college football preseason rankings.
To make those predictions good, a lot will have to go right for Georgia, particularly in the weeks leading to the Aug. 31 season opener on the road against Clemson.
Following are five primary objectives that must be achieved during the 29 practices between now and then:
1. Identify and reconfigure the defensive line.
The Bulldogs lost around 700 pounds of nose guard to the NFL in John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. Finding suitable replacements to man the middle of coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense will be a top priority, and whoever does likely won’t look much like their predecessors.
Junior Mike Thornton (6-foot-1, 290 pounds) will enter preseason camp No. 1 on the depth chart. Grantham speaks confidently of an “undersized” sort such as Thornton being able to get the job done and points to Jay Ratliff, who played that position when Grantham was defensive line coach for the Dallas Cowboys, as an example. But some younger players with more prototypical body-types will be given a hard look, including redshirt freshman John Taylor (6-4, 336), junior college transfers Chris Mayes (6-4, 330) and Toby Johnson (6-4, 305) and freshman John Atkins (6-4, 305).
2. Solidify offensive line.
With all five starters returning from a record-setting unit that helped win 12 games and a division title last season, one would think this camp would be the epitome of calm for the offensive line. But that notion was dispatched in the spring, when John Theus, a 14-game starter at right tackle last season, fell to No. 2 on the depth chart behind sophomore Xzavier Ward. Line coach Will Friend also pronounced the left-tackle job up for grabs, and all that happened before junior Kolton Houston had his eligibility restored Thursday.
However it shakes out, it is going to be a delicate process. The fact is the unit that manned Georgia’s offensive front last season remained unchanged except for some tweaks for injuries and helped set school records for points and yards in a season. The Bulldogs must be careful not to upset the chemistry.
3. Establish a pass rush.
There is no underestimating the value that Jarvis Jones brought to Georgia’s defense. Before bolting for the NFL draft after his junior season, Jones piled up 28 sacks and 44 tackles for loss in his two seasons. And while Georgia’s defense wasn’t known for stonewalling defensive opponents, it succeeded because of the big-play ability Jones brought to the game.
Sophomore Jordan Jenkins is the heir apparent to Jones and is said to possess even better “measurables.” We'll have to find out about instincts. Grantham points out that the Bulldogs have had a double-digit sack producer at weakside linebacker in each of his three seasons. Jenkins’ production this season could go a long way toward determining whether it’s the player or the system.
4. Improve special-teams play.
The Bulldogs can start by finding a placekicker for the first game. Sophomore Marshall Morgan, who was consistently inconsistent as a freshman, is expected to miss at least the season opener as a result of his early-July arrest for boating under the influence. So walk-on Adam Erickson, or some other unknown, likely will have to step up. But Georgia’s special-teams woes went well beyond that. Among the 14 SEC teams, the Bulldogs ranked 10th in punt returns, 11th in punting, 11th in PATs and 13th in field goals. Improvement is mandatory.
5. Create a secondary.
With the exception of cornerback Damian Swann, Georgia essentially does not know who will play at its other four defensive backfield positions. The four guys who manned them last season were in NFL camps last week. Freshman Tray Matthews is penciled in at free safety, sophomore Sheldon Dawson is penciled in at one corner, senior Connor Norman likely will play somewhere and nobody knows who is going to play nickel back now that Josh Harvey-Clemons is suspended for the first game. Some highly touted prospects were brought in for the sole purpose of shoring up this area. So a lot of eyes will be on Brendan Langley and the two Shaqs, Fluker and Wiggins. Stay tuned.