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Georgia begins spring practice as most intriguing SEC program

Amid daunting expectations, Kirby Smart is taking a patient approach in his first spring as Georgia's head coach. AP Photo/John Bazemore

On Tuesday, the most intriguing SEC program of the spring opened camp.

Now process of elimination will tell you it isn't defending national champion Alabama, reigning East champion Florida or trendy title pick Tennessee we're referring to. Those teams, along with likely preseason top-25 picks Ole Miss and LSU, already began practice this month.

Rather, it was Georgia that took to the practice field for the first time under rookie coach Kirby Smart less than 24 hours ago. And in doing so, the Bulldogs began a camp that is fraught with compelling storylines.

There's an entirely new coaching staff to watch come together, a quarterback battle to consider and the return of star tailback Nick Chubb from injury to monitor. Drilling down further, questions have to be answered about the personnel at linebacker, receiver and offensive line. The defense isn't expected to go through wholesale changes, but the offensive philosophy is still TBD.

You'd think that many questions would mean patience would be required of fans. You'd think it would be met with more tempered expectations. But you'd be wrong. This is Georgia, which fired Mark Richt for being good, but not good enough, remember? Though no one is saying Smart is on the hot seat from Day 1, there is a clear sense that a full-on rebuilding project isn't on the menu. In a mediocre SEC East, it's a win-now mentality in Athens.

Smart is trying to steer clear of that line of thinking, of course. He said he addressed the team on Monday, telling them, "Don't come out here thinking it's your time to win the SEC East or win the SEC tomorrow." The goal for now, he said, is to "get better each and every day."

More than once during his roughly 30-minute news conference Smart said that there was no way to get all 15 practices of the spring in at once. In other words: no rush.

"We want to start that climb, those steps, today," Smart said.

After months of waiting, even one step forward was a welcome development for a program that will be put under the microscope for the next month or so. The fact that Smart said Greyson Lambert will take first-team reps and Brice Ramsey will run with the twos gets the ball rolling on a quarterback battle that could make or break Georgia's chances of winning the division. Jacob Eason will most certainly be the most heavily evaluated No. 3 quarterback in the country this spring.

Chubb could help whoever the quarterback is, but until his health is cleared up it's a guessing game. Smart said his recovering star tailback is "dead on schedule" and even "a little ahead" but won't participate in any team drills during the spring to avoid injury.

The million dollar question -- Will Chubb be ready for the season? -- will be left unanswered for the foreseeable future.

"It's hard to say right now," Smart said. "He's on schedule for where he's got to be right now. I'm not forecasting forward to say he'll be 100 percent on the first day of practice of fall camp. I think we've got to go determine that as we go."

Smart is wise to take things a day at a time, whether it's charting Chubb's progress or anyone else's. With so much to do, there is no sense in getting ahead of himself. It was odd to hear him co-opt the often-used Nick Saban phrase of "be where your feet are," but he's right. Georgia can't win anything today. And it can't win anything tomorrow or during any of the next 14 practices. The Bulldogs very well could become the favorites to win the division, but that's not going to happen overnight.

But that's part of the appeal of the spring: development. And when it comes to improving and establishing an identity, there is no program in the SEC more in need of 15 practices than Georgia.

Smart doesn't have to answer every question facing his team this spring, but getting just a few settled would go a long way toward getting the Bulldogs in position to win the East.

Everyone is waiting to see how the rookie coach in Athens does. Whether he lives up to expectations or not starts now.