SEC: Chris Burnette

Georgia Bulldogs season preview

August, 8, 2014
Aug 8
10:30
AM ET
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Previewing the 2014 season for the Georgia Bulldogs

2013 record: 8-5 (5-3 SEC). Lost 24-19 to Nebraska in the TaxSlayer.com Gator Bowl.

Key losses: QB Aaron Murray, TE Arthur Lynch, DL Garrison Smith, S Josh Harvey-Clemons, S Tray Matthews, CB Shaq Wiggins, OT Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, OG Dallas Lee, DL Jonathan Taylor.

Key returnees: RB Todd Gurley, LB Ramik Wilson, LB Amarlo Herrera, OLB Leonard Floyd, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OT John Theus, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, WR Chris Conley, DE Ray Drew, C David Andrews, PK Marshall Morgan, WR Justin Scott-Wesley.

Instant impact newcomers: OLB Lorenzo Carter, RB Sony Michel, RB Nick Chubb, CB Malkom Parrish, DT Lamont Gaillard, DB Shattle Fenteng, TE Jeb Blazevich.

[+] EnlargeLeonard Floyd
Jeffrey Vest/Icon SMIAfter leading the Bulldogs with 6.5 sacks as a freshman last season, big things are expected of Leonard Floyd in 2014.
Breakout player: Floyd. The lanky outside linebacker led Georgia with 6.5 sacks in 2013 and added 9.5 tackles for loss as a freshman. He’ll benefit from having a full year in Georgia’s conditioning program and could become a star in his second season.

Most important game: Sept. 13 at South Carolina. Two of the favorites in the SEC East will meet early in the season in Columbia, where the Gamecocks haven’t lost since 2011. They’ve beaten Georgia in their last two trips to Williams-Brice Stadium, including a 35-7 thrashing in 2012. The margin for error is typically narrow within the division, so the winner of this one will be the early team in the East driver’s seat.

Biggest question mark: The secondary is easily Georgia’s biggest area of concern. The Bulldogs’ pass defense was spotty at best in 2013, and the offseason departures of three regulars has left plenty of personnel questions. Coach Mark Richt kicked two starting safeties -- Harvey-Clemons and Matthews -- off the team, and cornerback Wiggins transferred to Louisville, so there is plenty of playing time available. Swann’s presence is big at cornerback, and converted running back J.J. Green was impressive in the spring, but junior college transfer Fenteng and Parrish will have an opportunity to make an immediate impact in August.

Upset special: Oct. 11 at Missouri. This could be a tricky game that might not get as much attention as it deserves with matchups against Clemson, South Carolina, Florida and Auburn also on Georgia’s schedule. The defending SEC East champs lost a ton of firepower, so Mizzou seems likely to take a step backward. But it’s a long road trip that kicks off a stretch of more than a month when the Bulldogs won’t play at home once -- and it could easily become a loss if Georgia doesn’t have its act together.

Key stat: 36.7. The average score of a Georgia game was 36.7 to 29.0 in 2013. Even if what was an inexperienced defense improves this fall, the Bulldogs will still likely rely on their star-studded offense. They might need to keep scoring at that prolific clip, which is somewhat uncertain with three longtime starting offensive linemen to replace, to allow time for the defense and their new set of coaches to develop some continuity.

Team’s top Twitter follows: The Bulldogs have some good choices here. Seeing as how he’s never started a game, it might seem surprising that senior offensive lineman Watts Dantzler (@WattsDantzler) has 12,000 Twitter followers. But he’s a natural-born entertainer who has a nationwide following that grew substantially when he live tweeted a harrowing spring break trip back to Athens on a bus. Another good pick is tight ends coach John Lilly (@JohnLillyUGA), who is a much more creative on Twitter than the typical coach. Lastly, Conley (@_Flight_31) regularly updates his 27,400 followers on his latest film exploits; he produced and starred in a well-received “Star Wars” tribute film over the summer and has started work on a new movie in recent weeks.

Preseason predictions:

ESPN Stats & Info: 9.06 wins

Bovada over-under: 9.5 wins

Our take: Georgia was better than an eight-win team last season, but the Bulldogs were absolutely decimated by injuries to key players like Mitchell, Gurley, Scott-Wesley, tailback Keith Marshall and eventually Murray. If new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt can get things straight on his side of the ball, the ceiling is extremely high for this team. The offense has an impressive array of talent surrounding senior quarterback Hutson Mason and should be difficult to contain. If the Bulldogs open with a win against Clemson at Sanford Stadium, this could easily become a 10-2 or 9-3 season where Georgia is once again in the thick of the East race.
ATHENS, Ga. -- Like former Georgia teammate Zach Mettenberger a week before him, Aaron Murray wanted to prove that he’s close to full health at the Bulldogs’ pro day on Wednesday -- his first public passing session since tearing his left ACL last November.

Although he didn’t attempt more than 100 throws like Mettenberger did at LSU’s pro day last week, Murray’s battery of agility drills and a wide range of drops, rollouts and throws showed that he should be physically ready to compete when his future team opens rookie camp.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/John BazemoreAt Wednesday's pro day, Aaron Murray didn't show ill affects from his November ACL injury.
“I think I’ve shown everyone that they don’t have to worry about my injury, that it’s not going to stop me from being able to compete this year,” Murray said. “Now it’s just a matter of what teams like me, what teams don’t and is one going to draft me.”

Murray completed 48 of 54 throws with three drops in Wednesday’s passing session, which was directed by quarterback guru and former NFL assistant Terry Shea. Among Shea’s previous pre-draft clients are No. 1 overall picks Matthew Stafford and Sam Bradford and No. 2 pick Robert Griffin III.

“I thought it went very well,” Shea said. “In four weeks that we’ve been together, I’ve never seen him favor that knee or anything. So I’m really excited that he’s healthy.”

In fact, Murray is apparently ahead of schedule in his recovery. Trevor Moawad, vice president at the EXOS/Athletes’ Performance facilities where Murray conducted his offseason workouts, said the training staff followed a similar rehab schedule as they did with Bradford, who was also coming off an injury when preparing for the 2010 draft.

“I think he’s ahead of probably where he should be at this time and I think come May 8 after the draft, I think he’s going to be able to show up at a team and be right where he needs to be,” Moawad said.

Murray was the featured attraction at Wednesday’s sparsely attended pro day, which represented a significant change from last year, when the Bulldogs had eight players drafted -- four in the first 85 picks -- and three more who made NFL rosters as undrafted free agents.

Murray (No. 129) is the only Bulldog listed among ESPN’s top 150 draft prospects, and only he and tight end Arthur Lynch received invitations to the NFL combine. Nonetheless, 15 former Bulldogs worked out Wednesday before the 23 NFL teams that had representatives on hand -- many of whom still harbor hopes of becoming late-round selections or undrafted free agents.

That group included offensive guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, both of whom snapped to the quarterbacks during passing drills, showing off what they hope teams will view as positional versatility.

“I feel like you get to the next level, they want to have a guy who’s a swingman, who can play multiple positions,” said Burnette, rated by ESPN as the draft’s No. 19 guard prospect. “I don’t want to limit myself to guard. I’ve had a little bit of experience playing center, so I tried to focus on my snaps and stuff like that during this time off. I think it was good for me to be able to do that.”

Another player hoping to catch an NFL club’s eye was defensive lineman Garrison Smith, who ranked fourth on the team with 63 tackles and added six sacks and 10 tackles for a loss. Smith is hardly a flashy player, but said scouts who pay close attention to his performances on film will see an NFL-caliber player.

“I can do it all. I can look good in a T-shirt, I can look good in the birthday suit, it don’t matter. But I’m a football player,” joked Smith, rated by ESPN as the No. 34 defensive tackle prospect. “When them pads get on, it gets real serious. In them trenches, ask about me down there. I’ve got a lot of respect down there and I made a lot of plays.

“Look at game film, look at my stats. I had good games against good teams this year. I didn’t have no amazing games against teams that they say were less of opponents. I had good games against Florida, LSU, Tennessee. They’re supposed to have one of the best offensive lines in the country. Watch the film. That’s all I want people to see: I’m a good player.”

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt agreed with his former player’s assessment, noting that he would not be surprised to see Smith find a way to stick on an NFL roster like the three undrafted Bulldogs -- receiver Marlon Brown and defensive linemen Kwame Geathers and Abry Jones -- did a year ago.

“People will see his film. They’ll see his productivity,” Richt said. “From what I’m hearing, if he doesn’t get drafted, he’s going to get into a camp and get a chance to make it. We had Geathers last year didn’t get drafted and made a team. We had Abry Jones, I don’t think he was drafted [and] he made a team. I’m hoping he gets drafted, but if he doesn’t, he’ll get in camp and I think he’ll find a way to stick.”
ATHENS, Ga. – The first measuring stick for any senior class is championships -- and in that regard, the results for Georgia's 2013 seniors are a mixed bag.

This group won the SEC East as sophomores and juniors and fell just short of playing for a BCS championship last season before injuries crippled a 2013 team that felt it was poised to at least extend the team's run of consecutive division titles.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray, Rhett McGowan
Scott Clarke/ESPN ImagesAaron Murray, Rhett McGowan and Georgia's seniors have fared well against the team's biggest rivals.
Nonetheless, a secondary measure for Georgia's seniors is how their class fared against the program's biggest rivals, and the 2013 bunch has a chance to go out on an extremely high note. Entering Saturday's game against in-state rival Georgia Tech, this senior class is 12-3 over a four-year period against Tech, Florida, Auburn and Tennessee.

"Growing up watching Georgia football, you understand that those are really the big four teams that you want to beat," said senior offensive lineman Chris Burnette, a lifelong Georgia fan. "You want to beat Tech first and foremost; you always want to beat Florida, always got to beat Auburn, because it's the longest-running rivalry in the South and all that stuff. And you always want to beat Tennessee, because we just don't like orange.

"It's definitely good. As a senior class, it's awesome to see that we've been able to hold our own against them and hopefully just finish it out well."

In fact, these Bulldogs have held their own against Georgia's big four as well as any senior class since Tennessee came onto the schedule as an every-year rival in 1992. Their 12 wins match the win total by last season's seniors, who were 12-4, as the most against those rivals by any Georgia senior class in that time frame.

Before last season, the best four-year record for any senior class in that period was 10-6 -- a mark set by Georgia's 2004, 2005 and 2011 classes. And the 2013 seniors can pass all of them with a win against the Yellow Jackets on Saturday.

"It's going to be a special game knowing that it's our last one against Tech," senior receiver Rhett McGowan said. "That's always a heated rivalry, a little chippy in that game, but it's a lot of fun. So we're excited to get to go there and play them knowing it's going to be our last regular-season game, and it'll to be another emotional night. But after the first snap, that all goes away and you just play football and hope to get the win."

These seniors will finish their careers 4-0 against Tennessee and could make it 4-0 against Tech with a win Saturday. Their heartbreaking loss to Auburn two weekends ago meant that they will finish 2-2 against the Bulldogs' oldest rival. And perhaps the highlight of them all is that they posted a 3-1 mark against Florida, making them Georgia's first senior class since 1990 to enjoy a winning record against the Gators.

Another highlight is that they beat all four rivals in both 2011 and 2012, marking the first times since 1981 that Georgia swept those four games in a season.

The Auburn loss means they won't pull that feat for a third straight season -- and the senior class' 1-3 record against South Carolina means that budding rivalry should join the big four in importance over the foreseeable future -- but the 2013 class still can finish on a happy note with a win in Saturday's regular-season finale, which certainly beats the alternative.

"You never want to end your career with a loss to Tech. So that's definitely something that's not going to be hard to get up for," Burnette said. "We understand what they bring on offense and what they bring on defense and all that type of stuff, so we're going to be ready."

With Murray out, Mason's time is now

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
12:30
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's period of mourning over Aaron Murray's season-ending knee injury can't last long. The Bulldogs face rival Georgia Tech in six days -- and for the first time since 2009, they'll do it with someone other than Murray under center.

Once considered the Bulldogs' quarterback in waiting for 2014 -- after Murray, the SEC's all-time leading passer, departed for the NFL -- Hutson Mason's time is now, and that isn't as much of a cause for concern as one might expect.

“I think the whole team is confident in him,” Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said after Saturday's 59-17 win against Kentucky. “He's been preparing for four years now for his moment. His moment's just come a little earlier than we thought it might. I know he's ready, and I know everybody believes in him.”

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Todd Kirkland/Icon SMIHutson Mason has been Aaron Murray's main backup at Georgia. But now he gets his chance in the spotlight.
Mason has been Murray's primary backup since arriving at Georgia in 2010, and he opted to redshirt last season instead of transferring in order to gain a year of class separation between himself and Murray. The idea was to have one final season where he could potentially serve as the starting quarterback.

Now, he's getting an early tryout for the gig, with an opportunity to make his first career start against Georgia Tech and then to lead the offense once again in the Bulldogs' bowl game.

“I'm going to watch the game tomorrow and then start preparing for Tech,” Mason said after completing 13 of 19 passes for 189 yards and a touchdown, plus rushing for another score, against Kentucky. “I don't think anything in my preparation's going to change because I've been preparing like I've been the starter the whole year, and I think that's what's going to help me. And I don't have a lot of game-time experience, but I'm an older guy and I've been here a while and I know my teammates believe in me, and that's what's the most important thing.”

Georgia's offense didn't miss a beat on Saturday after Mason replaced Murray, who injured the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee after taking a big hit from Kentucky's Za'Darius Smith in the second quarter on Saturday. The Bulldogs scored touchdowns on their first four drives with Mason under center, and he capped his night with a field-goal drive before giving way to third-string quarterback Faton Bauta late in the blowout win.

The Bulldogs generated 309 yards in 37 plays with Mason in at QB against Kentucky, good for an average of 8.35 yards per play.

“When he's at practice, there's no drop-off when he comes in,” senior offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “He knows exactly what to do, has a great skillset, is a great leader. We know what he's bringing to the table, and he knows what we're bringing to the table so I think we're able to feed off of each other and be able to do well.”

There is a major difference between executing in practice and executing in a game, however, and Mason has only 11 games of experience -- almost all of which came in mop-up duty during blowouts. He didn't have time to over-think his role while replacing Murray on Saturday, but now he will be the center of attention for the first time during the run-up to a game against perhaps Georgia's biggest rival.

He said the number of close games Georgia played this season, with Murray playing the entire time, made him sometimes question the importance of preparing. He's obviously glad he continued to put in the work each week now, though.

“That's the nature of being a backup -- you've always got to be ready when your number's called on, especially with the way we've played this year,” Mason said. “There's many times through the week I'm like, 'Should I even prepare?' Because I've got voices in my head telling me, 'Should I prepare? I might not play. Is this worth it?' And it just goes to show you, always prepare like you're going to play because you never know when it's going to come.”

Murray's setback only exacerbates the Bulldogs' injury woes in a season where they have been especially prevalent. Georgia lost receiver Malcolm Mitchell to an ACL injury on the second series of the season -- he was celebrating a 75-yard Todd Gurley touchdown run when the injury occurred -- and tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley both went down with additional ACL tears during a midseason win against Tennessee.

Offensive weapons Gurley, Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jay Rome have also been knocked out of the lineup for multiple games, but Murray's seems like the most painful after he returned for his senior season only to suffer an injury near the very end. It will prevent him from participating in a postseason all-star game or at the NFL combine.

Georgia, however, must quickly pick up the pieces with Mason at quarterback, much like it did when its starting quarterback left his final home game with a devastating injury.

“I was proud of the way [Mason] played and proud of the way the other guys picked it up when Aaron went down,” Bobo said. “I feel for Aaron on senior night to get hurt with as much as he's invested in the program and everything he's done. But he played great again while he was out there -- just another phenomenal night for him.”

Murray's injury puts damper on home finale

November, 24, 2013
11/24/13
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia sent its seniors out the right way with a 59-17 pummeling of Kentucky on Saturday night, but the Bulldogs lost perhaps their most valuable senior of all.

Quarterback Aaron Murray -- who has started every game of his career and on Saturday tied David Greene's school record for most career starts by a non-kicker (52) -- injured his left knee in the second quarter and needed assistance to reach the locker room.

Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said he does not expect Murray to play next Saturday against Georgia Tech, but would not rule him out for the Bulldogs' bowl game, pending the results of an MRI on the injured knee.

“It just was hard to have a lot of fun,” Richt said after the game. “Even right now, I'm glad we won and I'm really proud of how we did, but it's kind of a crummy feeling right now when you think about what Aaron is going through.”

Prior to the injury, Saturday's game was shaping up as a glorious going-away party for the senior quarterback in his final game at Sanford Stadium.

He was the centerpiece of an emotional pregame ceremony to honor Georgia's 28 departing seniors, with the home crowd offering a raucous ovation when the SEC's all-time leading passer was the final Bulldog to be introduced. Murray had tossed four touchdown passes (he finished 18-for-23 for 183 yards) and in the first quarter became the first SEC quarterback to pass for 3,000-plus yards in four seasons.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray
AP Photo/John BazemoreAaron Murray will have an MRI on his left knee to determine the extent of his injury.
But Kentucky defensive lineman Za'Darius Smith slammed Murray to the ground after a pass to Rhett McGowan deflected off the senior receiver and floated to Wildcats linebacker Khalid Henderson at the Kentucky 2-yard line. Murray immediately motioned to the training staff that he needed assistance, and they walked him directly to the locker room with Murray struggling to put any weight on his left leg.

He left Sanford Stadium during the third quarter to undergo an MRI at Athens' St. Mary's Hospital and did not return.

“You could tell in his body language he was hurt,” backup quarterback Hutson Mason said. “It wasn't the same Murray.”

And it was yet another injury in a fall where the Bulldogs (7-4, 5-3 SEC) already lost tailback Keith Marshall and receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley for the season, while tailback Todd Gurley and receivers Chris Conley and Michael Bennett also missed multiple games with an assortment of injuries.

“He did mention that was about how our season has gone as far as injuries and everything,” Richt said of his conversation with Murray at halftime. “It was tough.”

Mason did an admirable job as Murray's replacement -- he finished 13-for-19 for 189 yards and one touchdown, plus a 1-yard scoring plunge -- but Murray's injury put a major damper on what should have been a happy final outing between the hedges for the seniors.

“Seeing Aaron go down, that was tough. That's one of my best friends. He was one of my groomsmen at my wedding, and seeing him go down, I never want him to go down because most of the time it's my fault,” said senior offensive guard Chris Burnette, whose wife, Arielle, was one of Murray's classmates at Tampa (Fla.) Plant High School.

The Bulldogs quickly made it clear that there would be no lingering hangover in the wake of last week's devastating 43-38 loss at Auburn, when the Tigers scored the game-winning touchdown with 25 seconds to play. Georgia needed only three plays to score its first touchdown -- on a 9-yard pass from Murray to McGowan -- and led Kentucky 21-0 after its first three possessions.

Murray and Gurley were the stars of the early onslaught, with the pair hooking up for a 16-yard touchdown where Gurley soared into the end zone -- reminding Bulldogs fans of Knowshon Moreno's memorable 2008 touchdown dive against Arizona State -- that put Georgia up 14-0.

By the time Gurley left in the third quarter of the blowout, he had rushed eight times for 77 yards, caught five passes for 90 yards and scored two touchdowns.

Not to be miss out on the fun, Georgia's defense posted perhaps its finest outing of the season. A week after surrendering 566 yards to Auburn's potent offense, the Bulldogs held Kentucky (2-9, 0-7) to 211 yards -- 69 of which came on Dyshawn Mobley's first-quarter touchdown run, with 30 more coming on a Maxwell Smith touchdown pass to Javess Blue against the defensive reserves late in the fourth quarter.

“We got some turnovers, too, which was good to see,” said Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham, whose defense recovered three of Kentucky's six fumbles, with those turnovers leading to 21 Bulldogs points. “Kentucky has not turned the ball over a lot.”

Richt credited the seniors for holding the team together through the spate of injuries and a disappointing season that started with a top-five ranking and BCS title aspirations.

“Even though the season had certain expectations and certain hopes got dashed along the way, the leadership was great,” Richt said. “The unity of our team was rock solid because of those guys. And I've said it a couple times, this was a fun team to coach, but I think it was mostly because of the seniors and how they led this year.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia's win on Nov. 9 against Appalachian State wasn't just one of the last times we'll see this senior-laden version of the Bulldogs offense, it also served as a sneak preview of what lies ahead.

Following Saturday's date with Kentucky -- the final game at Sanford Stadium this season -- the Bulldogs will look entirely different on offense the next time they take the field before a home crowd. And many of the players who will take over for the likes of Aaron Murray and his fellow seniors next fall also filled their spots in the fourth quarter of Georgia's 45-6 win over the Mountaineers two weekends ago.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Radi Nabulsi/ESPNBackup quarterback Hutson Mason is the frontrunner to start for the Bulldogs in 2014.
“I think the thing you can't get in practice is just that 95,000 [fans] with the atmosphere,” said junior Hutson Mason, Georgia's presumptive starting quarterback next season, who went 11-for-16 for 160 yards and a touchdown in the fourth quarter against Appalachian State. “Really you can get everything [else] in practice. Our coaches, they believe in putting a lot of pressure on you so when it comes to the game, you're used to that feeling. But it's definitely a different atmosphere, different jitters.”

Assuming he wins the quarterback job, Mason will be in a convenient position next season. Georgia loses seven seniors -- Murray, tight end Arthur Lynch, receivers Rantavious Wooten and Rhett McGowan and offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee -- who started on offense against Auburn. And yet the returning skill-position talent surrounding the Bulldogs' next quarterback will be as impressive as that of nearly any offense in the country.

Not only will tailback Todd Gurley return for his junior season, the Bulldogs expect to get receivers Malcolm Mitchell and Justin Scott-Wesley and tailback Keith Marshall back from season-ending knee injuries that crippled the offense at points this fall. That's in addition to other returning weapons like receivers Chris Conley, Michael Bennett and Jonathon Rumph, tight end Jay Rome and tailbacks J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas and 2014 commitments Sony Michel and Nick Chubb, both of whom rank among ESPN's top eight prospects at running back.

Not a bad situation for a first-time starting quarterback who must replace the most distinguished passer in SEC history.

“We've got a lot of weapons,” redshirt freshman receiver Blake Tibbs said. “And Hutson, he don't care who's open. If they put a dog in a helmet and some equipment out there, if he was open, Hutson would throw it to him. That's one thing about Hutson: He don't care. If you're open, he's going to trust you to make the play and he's going to keep throwing to you.”

Mason certainly proved that in his lone opportunity for significant playing time this season. He hit his first eight pass attempts, connecting with the likes of Rumph, Green, freshman Reggie Davis and walk-on Kenneth Towns on his first drive. Then came further completions to Tibbs, Michael Erdman, Douglas and Rumph again before his first incomplete pass.

The common bond there? Those are mostly the players with whom Mason has regularly worked on the Bulldogs' second-team offense, so chemistry was not an issue when they hit the field.

“That group's kind of been playing together -- besides Rumph -- for a long time and a lot of when our twos go against the ones, they always seem to do well and I think there's a chemistry between those guys kind of like Aaron and Bennett and other guys,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said.

There's a long time between now and the reserves' time to shine. Heck, there are three games remaining this season.

That means there is plenty of time for the stars in waiting to continue to develop before the Bulldogs open the 2014 season against Clemson on Aug. 30 -- which is exactly the mentality Rumph says he's developing.

“That's what young players have got to understand,” said Rumph, who has six catches in the last three games after missing the first half of the season with a hamstring ailment. “This is your job, so every time you go to school or go to practice, you've got to work to get better. That's all I'm trying to do is keep adding stuff to my game. I've got the feel for the game, I know what I'm capable of. I'm just trying to keep adding stuff to my game.”

Mason echoed those thoughts, pointing out that while even coach Mark Richt has declared Mason as the frontrunner to win the job next season, he still must make good use of this opportunity and not just assume the job is his from the get-go.

He has the opportunity to work with what could be an extremely productive offense next season -- if he stakes a claim on the job.

“I'm not going to be na´ve. I hear about that stuff and I read some of it and stuff like that. I've always been the first to say that I believe they're just being nice,” Mason said. “I believe that I've done a good job of performing when my opportunity comes, but I've never stepped on the field in front of 90,000 and like I was saying earlier, that's different from playing in practice.

“So I enjoy the comments and I enjoy the people that have faith in me, but really myself, I just take it day-by-day and say, 'You know what, what have I proven?' because in reality I haven't proven a lot. So when that opportunity comes, hopefully I'll show up.”

UGA, Kentucky both look to bounce back

November, 18, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Given the way they finished in their most recent outings, it would be understandable if both Georgia and Kentucky have difficulty getting up for Saturday's game in Athens. Because at this point, neither team has much to play for aside from pride.

[+] EnlargeRicardo Louis
Shanna LockwoodRicardo Louis' catch deprived Georgia of any chance at winning the SEC East. Can the Dawgs rebound and play well against Kentucky?
“We need to be able to bounce back,” said Georgia coach Mark Richt, whose team's dramatic fourth-quarter rally went for naught when No. 6 Auburn completed a 73-yard Hail Mary in the final minute to win 43-38. “Kentucky had a tough loss, too, so both teams have to shake it off and get back ready to compete. That's the nature of the business and the nature of the game of football or competitive sports, period. You lose and you've got a game the next week or the next day, depending on the sport, and you've got to shake it off and get back to work.”

Kentucky (2-8, 0-6 SEC) did indeed suffer a difficult defeat, falling 22-6 at Vanderbilt to drop its 14th consecutive conference game. The Wildcats outgained the Commodores 246-172 through three quarters, but Vandy dominated the fourth, enjoying a 141-16 yardage advantage and scoring 13 unanswered points to earn the victory.

But that was just a run-of-the-mill loss compared to the gut-wrenching circumstances by which Georgia lost. The Bulldogs were on the verge of getting blown out early, only to slowly creep back into the game. Then Aaron Murray and the Georgia offense caught fire late, scoring three straight touchdowns and rolling up 216 yards of offense in the fourth quarter alone, only to have Ricardo Louis grab a deflected pass and score the game-winning touchdown on a fourth-down, desperation heave by Nick Marshall.

The loss eliminated Georgia (6-4 overall, 4-3 SEC) from contention in the SEC East and forced the Bulldogs to focus on lesser goals instead of representing the division for a third straight season in the SEC championship game.

“The season isn't over with. We will approach it just like any other game,” said Rantavious Wooten, one of seven seniors who started against Auburn, along with fellow receiver Rhett McGowan, Murray, offensive linemen Chris Burnette, Kenarious Gates and Dallas Lee, and tight end Arthur Lynch. “It's going to be my last game in Sanford Stadium, so we will have to talk to the young guys and tell them to keep the faith and keep fighting.”

There is also the matter of reaching the best bowl possible. Although Georgia's options aren't particularly promising -- the majority of Sunday's bowl projections favor the Bulldogs to play in either the Gator or Music City bowls -- that possibility was off the table for Kentucky weeks ago.

The Wildcats, however, have given Georgia fits in recent years, so the Bulldogs likely can't afford a flat effort. Georgia is 5-2 against Kentucky dating back to a 24-20 loss in Lexington in 2006 -- one of four times in that seven-game stretch where the outcome has been decided by seven points or less.

Considering how Georgia has struggled to finish off opponents -- Saturday was only the most recent heart-stopper for a Bulldogs team that is setting an historically bad pace on defense -- that has to be a cause for concern.

In fact, Georgia's defensive shortcomings were the subject of multiple questions Richt faced on his Sunday teleconference, as Todd Grantham's defense is on pace to set new program marks for most points allowed and most yards allowed.

The 2009 team surrendered 337 points, which is a program high for a season of 12-plus games. This year's team, which is surrendering 30.2 points per game, has already allowed 302 points with three games to play (Kentucky, Georgia Tech and a bowl game). Likewise, the 2013 Bulldogs are on pace to surrender 5,029.7 yards -- potentially just the second time in school history that Georgia allowed 5,000-plus yards after last season's bunch surrendered 5,009 in 14 games.

“Here's what I say: I say we're a team here at Georgia and we're going to keep coaching and keep trying to make improvements and corrections on everything we do, in all phases of the game,” Richt said when asked to rate his level of satisfaction with the defensive coaching staff's performance.

Such a response is common under these circumstances for Richt, who is rarely willing to discuss his concerns publicly. Grantham's defense is preparing to face teams that rank 104th (Kentucky, 349.2 yards per game) and 53rd (Georgia Tech, 432.2) nationally in total offense, so the Bulldogs should have an opportunity to improve their underwhelming defensive stats before the season ends.

It would be much easier to focus on such necessary improvements had safeties Tray Matthews or Josh Harvey-Clemons managed to knock down Auburn's last-gasp touchdown pass to preserve Georgia's comeback win. The Bulldogs would still be alive in the East race and would have a third win against a top-10 opponent this season instead of grasping at less-appealing methods to motivate themselves for their home finale against Kentucky.

That's Richt and company's unique challenge this week after a defeat that could naturally cause lingering dejection -- and the coach said he plans to focus on the positive as best he can.

“We've got to do a good job of, again, pointing out all the positive things that happened and building on those types of things, because there were a lot of tremendous things that happened in the game,” Richt said. “And then make sure we learn from whatever mistakes we had, correct them, have a plan for that, and then we have to get the new game plan in.”

What to watch from regrouping offense

October, 8, 2013
10/08/13
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt delivered the bad news on Sunday when he confirmed that tailback Keith Marshall and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley would join wideout Malcolm Mitchell on the season-ending injury list.

With receiver Michael Bennett (knee) out and All-SEC tailback Todd Gurley (ankle) questionable for Saturday's game against No. 25 Missouri (5-0, 1-0 SEC), No. 7 Georgia (4-1, 3-0) has little time to identify the personnel who must play larger roles in order to hang with a Tigers offense that ranks among the nation's most productive units.

Here are four groups/trends to watch as the Bulldogs move forward:

Freshman tailbacks: With Georgia's two star backs both possibly out Saturday, it's certainly possible we will see another heavy dose of true freshmen J.J. Green -- who rushed for 129 yards last Saturday against Tennessee -- and Brendan Douglas at tailback.

[+] EnlargeBrendan Douglas
Jim Brown/USA TODAY SportsBrendan Douglas and fellow freshman J.J. Green likely will be asked to shoulder more of the load.
That isn't necessarily a scary proposition for the Bulldogs, who have seen the young duo perform well in practice and in spot duty up until last Saturday's overtime win.

“We see those guys in practice, and they do a great job of breaking tackles or shaking guys or breaking loose for touchdowns against a great defense,” offensive guard Chris Burnette said. “Seeing them do that in practice, we know they're capable of doing that in a game.”

The larger question is what happens if Gurley is unable to play Saturday. If one of the top running backs in the nation remains unable to go as the week progresses -- and he once again did not practice on Monday -- Georgia's coaches might have to take a longer look this week at freshman A.J. Turman.

He seemed like a certain redshirt candidate a week ago, but Richt's staff must determine whether the two freshmen who already have played and walk-ons Kyle Karempelis and Brandon Harton would be enough to carry the load without Gurley and Marshall.

“A lot may depend on how Gurley's doing,” Richt said. “If Gurley comes back and you've got the other two, you don't normally have to go three backs. But if Gurley can't go, then we've got to try to figure out what we're going to do. We've got Harton and Karempelis that have played for us before, so those are possibilities. We've just got to kind of try to figure that out.

Wild cards: Speaking of Turman, he's not the only newcomer who has not played yet and still might or might not make an impact this fall.

Receivers Tramel Terry and Jonathon Rumph -- Georgia's second- and sixth-highest-rated 2013 signees in ESPN's player rankings -- have not played to date but still could factor into offensive coordinator Mike Bobo's plans ... eventually.

Richt said "it's very doubtful that [Rumph would] be ready" for the Missouri game while still dealing with a left hamstring strain, but "after that, we're going to definitely try to get him ready."

Meanwhile, Terry struggled during preseason practice while still recovering from offseason ACL surgery and seemed set to redshirt this season. But because of the receiver attrition, the freshman might be someone the coaches eventually consider.

“I just think the longer he practices coming back from his injury, the better he'll be,” Richt said. “Is he really ready for this type of competition? I don't know.

“And the fact that he hasn't had a lot of reps with our offensive unit, he's been working mainly scout team reps, and he's a freshman, so it's hard to really be ready in all the ways that you have to be ready -- not only physically, but knowing the game plan and just having experience running the routes and playing in games like that. So I'm not counting him out, but I really don't know the answer right now.”

More tight ends: Considering the level of in-game attrition that occurred at Tennessee, perhaps the most surprising statistic from that game was that neither Arthur Lynch nor Jay Rome made a reception.

Expect that to rank as a statistical anomaly moving forward.

When Georgia's receivers encountered a number of injury issues last season, Lynch and Rome were two of the top pass-catching beneficiaries. The two tight ends combined for 25 catches for 367 yards -- 251 by Lynch and 116 by Rome – over the final six games last season. In the first eight games of 2012, they combined for 10 catches and 216 yards.

Lynch and Rome have 212 yards -- 169 by Lynch and 43 by Rome -- this season.

[+] EnlargeRantavious Wooten
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesWith injuries mounting, senior Rantavious Wooten might be counted on to play a much larger role.
Replacement receivers: Junior Chris Conley -- who led Georgia with 64 receiving yards and made a tremendous one-handed touchdown catch against Tennessee -- is nearly the only known quantity in the Bulldogs' receiving corps for the time being.

Yes, they have fifth-year seniors Rhett McGowan and Rantavious Wooten available, but both players have been role players throughout their careers. Beyond that, Georgia might need reserves like Reggie Davis, Blake Tibbs, Michael Erdman, Kenny Townes to pick up their production.

“We're deep in the receiver room,” McGowan said. “A lot of people don't know that, because they haven't played, but they're at Georgia for a reason.”

Bennett will undergo arthroscopic surgery today to determine the extent of his knee injury. Even if he receives positive news, the junior will certainly miss the Missouri game and possibly more time after that.

Since they have dealt with regular injuries over the last two seasons, the receivers believe they are well-prepared for their current situation and now must take advantage of this opportunity.

“[Receivers coach Tony] Ball always tells me, 'Prepare like you are the starter, and you never know, because you're one play away from [being] a starter,' ” said Wooten, who caught two touchdowns against Tennessee. “So all the guys know that in the room, and I know that myself, and I always had that in the back of my head. Any guy could be the next man up. The coaches have the final decision on that, but at the end of the day, that's what we do, we practice, and we get ready for those types of situations.”

SEC players of the week

October, 7, 2013
10/07/13
2:30
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Here are the SEC players of the week, as announced by the league on Monday:

OFFENSIVE: Zach Mettenberger, QB, LSU
  • Threw for 340 yards and two touchdowns in leading LSU to a 59-26 win over Mississippi State. Completed a career-high 25 passes on 29 attempts in engineering the Tiger offense to 563 total yards and eight touchdowns. His .860 completion percentage is the fourth-highest total for a QB in school history in a game with at least 20 attempts.
  • Became only the third QB in school history, and the first since Rohan Davey in 2001, to have 300 yards passing in back-to-back games. The 59 points were the most for the Tigers in an SEC game since scoring 63 against Kentucky in 1997. LSU has scored 30 points or more in all six games -- a first in school history.
DEFENSIVE: Loucheiz Purifoy, DB, Florida
  • He returned his first career interception for a touchdown (42 yards) that gave Florida a lead it never relinquished. Also made the first sack of his career, pulling Brandon Allen down 8 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
  • Added four tackles, three pass breakups and a forced fumble in the win over the Razorbacks.
  • Assisted a Gator defense that made two sacks against an Arkansas offense that was allowing just 0.6 sacks per game.
  • Also returned two punts for 17 yards.
  • Named the Walter Camp Defensive Player of the Week.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Marshall Morgan, PK, Georgia
  • Morgan scored 10 points in the Bulldogs’ 34-31 overtime win at Tennessee, including the game-winning 42-yard field goal (first FG game-winner since 2009 for the Bulldogs).
  • Started the game by drilling a career-long 56 yarder to put Georgia up 3-0 (longest FG for the Bulldogs since 2011, the longest on the road in school history, longest in Neyland Stadium history, the longest for any team against Tennessee in history, the longest in the SEC this year).
FRESHMAN: Carl Lawson, DE, Auburn
  • True freshman had a career-high six tackles, including 3.5 tackles for loss (minus-10 yards) and two sacks (minus-7 yards) and one quarterback hurry.
  • Helped lead Auburn to its first win over a ranked opponent since 2011.
  • Part of an Auburn defensive line that recorded 6.0 sacks and 14.0 tackles for loss, the most sacks by an AU team since 11 vs. Alabama in 2005 and the most TFLs by an AU defense since 2004 vs. Kentucky.
OFFENSIVE LINEMAN: Chris Burnette, OG, Georgia
  • Graded out at 82 percent with six dominator blocks and four knockdowns during Georgia's 34-31 overtime win at Tennessee.
  • Burnette anchored an offense that generated at least 34 points and 400 yards for the fifth consecutive game of the 2013 season.
DEFENSIVE LINEMAN: Michael Sam, DE, Missouri
  • Notched a second-straight three-sack game with his three-sack, five-tackle outing Saturday night in Mizzou’s 51-28 win at Vanderbilt. Two of his sacks came on fourth-down plays in the fourth-quarter as Vanderbilt was trying to stage a late rally.
  • The three sacks ties the NCAA single-game high through Oct. 5th this season, and Sam is the only player in the nation so far to record three sacks in a game twice. It’s been done 16 times overall so far, but Sam is the only repeat performer on the single-game list.
  • Sam leads the SEC in both sacks and tackles for loss, and ranks fifth in the NCAA so far in sacks (1.2 per game) and 6th in the NCAA in TFLs (2.0 per game).

Murray, Georgia gain redemption with win

September, 7, 2013
9/07/13
11:03
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ATHENS, Ga. -- The shoe was finally on the other foot Saturday night as the final seconds ticked off in No. 11 Georgia's 41-30 win against No. 6 South Carolina.

After three straight years of backbreaking blunders, key special-teams mistakes and offensive inefficiency, quarterback Aaron Murray -- who delivered perhaps the most impressive performance of his career -- and the Bulldogs gained redemption in the first big SEC East game of the season.

[+] EnlargeAaron Murray, Kolton Houston
Scott Cunningham/Getty ImagesGeorgia quarterback Aaron Murray (right) passed for 309 yards on 17-of-23 passing against South Carolina.
“For the whole team, it feels great,” Murray said. “All week long, everybody wanted to talk about the head coach and the QB, but it’s a team game. We win and lose as a team. Coach [Mark] Richt and I didn’t win tonight. The Georgia Bulldogs did, and I’m so proud of the way all the guys played.”

Twice in the last three years -- the other time it wasn't necessary as South Carolina won with a blowout -- the Gamecocks rode workhorse tailback Marcus Lattimore with run after pounding run in the fourth quarter, mounting long drives that used up the clock and secured huge division victories.

This time it was Georgia protecting a narrow lead when the Bulldogs took over at their own 1-yard line with 8:28 left on the clock. Thirteen plays -- including 12 runs -- and 81 yards later, South Carolina was out of time as the trio of Todd Gurley, Brendan Douglas and Quayvon Hicks teamed with a resurgent offensive line to pound South Carolina's defense into submission.

“When we got the ball on the half-yard line with eight minutes left, we knew that if we can control the clock, if we can keep the ball on the ground and just keep pushing it down their throat that we can win this game and close the door,” right guard Chris Burnette said. “That's the moments that you live for as an offensive lineman.”

Center David Andrews took it a step further, saying, “I think we made them quit tonight” in running 76 plays for 536 yards, including 53 for 227 on the ground.

In last season's 35-7 loss at South Carolina, Georgia's offense never got on track. Murray passed for a career-low 109 yards and a previously explosive offense delivered just four plays that covered at least 15 yards. The Bulldogs had four in the first quarter alone on Saturday, and finished the day with 11 that covered 15-plus -- none bigger than an 85-yard touchdown pass to Justin Scott-Wesley in the fourth quarter that gave the Bulldogs a 41-30 lead with 13 minutes to play.

Murray rolled left away from Jadeveon Clowney after his protection broke down and found a wide-open Scott-Wesley behind South Carolina's Ahmad Christian and T.J. Gurley down the left sideline. Once the UGA track sprinter -- and first-time starter at receiver -- hauled in Murray's pass, nobody was going to catch him.

“Murray got some pressure and I just stayed on the sideline uncovered and Murray got the ball out, great pass, and the rest is history,” said Scott-Wesley, who totaled 116 yards on three catches.

Clowney and South Carolina's defense seemed to intimidate Murray & Co. last season in Columbia, but that was far from the case on Saturday. Clowney, South Carolina's star defensive end, managed a sack and two tackles for a loss, but he was rarely a big factor for the Gamecocks.

According to ESPN Stats & Info, Georgia averaged 8.3 yards per play in the 59 plays that Clowney was on the field, while the Bulldogs averaged 2.8 per play on the 17 downs where he was on the sideline.

Meanwhile, Murray was a nearly flawless 17-for-23 for 309 yards and four touchdowns -- and most importantly, no turnovers -- while facing a defense that had previously held him to the lowest career Total QBR (46.0) of any division opponent.

Gurley and his backfield mates certainly eased Murray's burden on Saturday. Bulldogs offensive coordinator Mike Bobo lamented his abandoning the running game early in last season's loss when South Carolina built a big early lead. That would not be the case in the rematch, with Gurley and Keith Marshall accounting for 252 yards and three touchdowns after managing just 81 rushing yards on 25 combined carries against the Gamecocks last season.

“The line, man, they kept telling me this week, 'You need 25 or more,' ” said Gurley, who rushed for 132 yards on 30 carries and scored on both the ground and through the air. “I was ready to give them 25 and we came away with the victory.”

Georgia enters its first bye week of the season back on solid ground after an uneven performance last week at Clemson gave the Bulldogs their first loss of the season. They have two weeks until North Texas visits Athens, with SEC power LSU waiting the following week to complete a demanding September schedule.

The Bulldogs knew they couldn't afford to open the season 0-2 if they were to maintain reasonable hopes of contending for SEC and perhaps BCS championships. Thanks to the past failings against South Carolina that they exorcised on Saturday, they won't have to spend the next two weeks stewing over another lost opportunity.

“That's a hypothetical that I'm glad didn't happen. It would be tough,” Burnette admitted. “We're just excited by the fact that all our goals are still on the table. If we win the next game and the next game and the next game, we can make it to Pasadena.”

Bobo, Murray focus on finer points

August, 18, 2013
8/18/13
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Aaron Murray, Mike BoboDale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsMike Bobo (right) calls quarterback Aaron Murray an extension of the coaching staff on the field.

ATHENS, Ga. -- When Mike Bobo says he wants to see a more mobile Aaron Murray this season, Georgia’s offensive coordinator doesn’t envision his quarterback running circles around defenses like Robert Griffin III or Michael Vick.

Sure, maybe Murray will run a bit more than he has the past two seasons, but Bobo actually means that he wants the senior to have a better sense of where defenders are around him in the pocket -- and to have the wherewithal to move into positions that maintain clear throwing lanes.

“We were trying to say, 'Hey, there’s an example of extending the play.' It’s never going to be perfect that you drop back, you hitch twice, you go to your second progression, boom, completion. That doesn’t happen, really,” Bobo said. “It’s move to the side, slide to the right, step up, run two yards, bang, throw the ball.”

The convenient aspect of coaching a fourth-year starter is that Bobo can focus on such finer points. Technique and knowledge of the Bulldogs’ offensive scheme are certainly not problems for a player with Murray's maniacal work ethic.

“Since halfway of last year, there’s really not anything that I didn’t feel comfortable giving him,” Bobo said. “Really, he understands the whole playbook. He’s really an extension of our offensive staff.”

That partnership has produced back-to-back SEC East titles and never-before-seen offensive production at Georgia. The Bulldogs set a program scoring record last fall and Murray set single-season UGA records for passing yards (3,893) and touchdown passes (36).

He became the first quarterback in SEC history to pass for 3,000 yards in three seasons, and could become just the fourth in FBS history to surpass the 3,000-yard mark in each of four seasons.

That’s not why he turned down the NFL to spend another season at Georgia, however. Murray insists he essentially made that decision as the final seconds ticked away in the Bulldogs’ loss to Alabama in the SEC championship game, a few yards shy of a chance to play for the BCS title.

“The No. 1 reason why I came back this year is to win a championship -- to win an SEC championship game, to win a national championship,” Murray said. “So I think that’s pretty much it. If I leave here with a championship, with some rings, that’s all I care about.”

To reach that goal, Murray worked on another of the areas Bobo asked him to improve: leadership.

Bobo split the team into approximately 10 groups this summer and asked at least one team leader to take ownership of each group. The groups won points in such categories as attendance at class and in summer workouts, and multiple veterans said summer participation was the best it had been in their UGA careers.

“I think we really lucked out,” senior tight end Arthur Lynch said. “I came in with him and I didn’t really start realizing until he started molding into a leader. He always wanted to be that and he kind of molded into it and grew into that leadership role.

“Really now I think he’s got a lot of respect for his performance on the field, but now it’s even that much more respect off [it]. I think that’s kind of one thing he’s always wanted, not so much for himself, but so he could help lead a better group of guys to become a better team.”

If Murray only duplicates his numbers from last season, he will break the SEC’s career records for pass attempts, completions, passing yards and touchdown passes. So it might seem strange that he was voted as only the third-team quarterback on the media’s preseason All-SEC team.

However, with Heisman Trophy winner Johnny Manziel of Texas A&M and AJ McCarron of back-to-back BCS champion Alabama still around, Murray must continue his upward trajectory in big games to earn more love. Correcting that one hole in his resume -- and he has that opportunity with games against Clemson, South Carolina and LSU before the end of September -- is nearly all he has left to accomplish.

“In my opinion, he doesn’t have to prove anything,” right guard Chris Burnette said. “But I know the outside opinion is for him to just continue to do well and even better in the big games. Honestly, he’s a great leader of our team. Anytime we do well in a big game, he has a large part of it.

“Especially being a quarterback, I think a lot of the blame can get lumped on him when it’s not really his fault. I feel like if we come out and achieve our goals this year, I don’t think anybody will really be able to say too much about him.”
We have more watch lists out, as the Butkus and the Rotary Lombardi awards announced their preseason players for the 2013 season Monday.

The Butkus Award is given annually to the nation's top linebacker, while the Lombardi Award goes to "down linemen, end-to-end, either on offense or defense, who set up no farther than 10 yards to the left or right of the ball, or linebackers who set up no farther than five yards deep from the line of scrimmage."

The SEC put nine on the Butkus Award watch list, while 17 made the Lombardi Award watch list.

Here are the Butkus members:
Here are the Lombardi members:
Two more preseason watch lists are out, and both are very SEC heavy.

The conference led all others by putting 16 on the Bronco Nagurski and 15 on the Outland Trophy watch lists. The Nagurski Trophy is given annually to the national defensive player of the year, while the Outland Trophy is given annually to college football's best interior lineman.

Here are the 16 who made the Nagurski list:
Here are the 16 who made the Outland list:

Georgia Bulldogs spring wrap

May, 6, 2013
5/06/13
9:30
AM ET
GEORGIA BULLDOGS

2012 record: 12-2
2012 conference record: 7-1 (first, SEC East)
Returning starters: Offense: 10; defense: 4; kicker/punter: 2

Top returners: QB Aaron Murray, RB Todd Gurley, CB Damian Swann, WR Malcolm Mitchell, OLB Jordan Jenkins, OL Kenarious Gates, OG Chris Burnette, ILB Amarlo Herrera

Key losses: OLB Jarvis Jones, LB Alec Ogletree, S Shawn Williams, S Bacarri Rambo, NG John Jenkins, CB Sanders Commings, WR Tavarres King

2012 statistical leaders (* - returner)
Rushing: Gurley * (1,385 yards)
Passing: Murray * (3,893 yards)
Receiving: King (950 yards)
Tackles: Ogletree (111)
Sacks: Jones (14.5)
Interceptions: Swann * (4)

Spring answers

1. Safety starters: With 2011 All-Americans Rambo and Williams completing their college careers, the Bulldogs entered the spring with two big holes at safety. It appears sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons and January enrollee Tray Matthews have all but claimed the starting positions, however. Harvey-Clemons was named the Bulldogs’ defensive MVP of spring practice, and Matthews generated the most buzz of anyone this spring with his ability to deliver crushing hits. Georgia’s inexperience along the back end of the defense is not ideal, but the two youngsters could become a pleasant surprise.

2. Newcomers contribute: Matthews wasn’t the only early enrollee who made his mark during the spring -- and many of those 13 newcomers will play big roles in the fall. Others like defensive lineman Chris Mayes, linebacker Reggie Carter, cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and running back/receiver J.J. Green all but ensured that they will contribute this fall by acquitting themselves nicely while learning how to function as college players. Keep an eye on another early enrollee, receiver Tramel Terry, once the Bulldogs open preseason practice. Terry did not practice this spring while recovering from a torn ACL suffered late last fall, but he could be healthy by August and could become yet another valuable freshman.

3. Returning weapons: With almost everyone returning on offense -- only King and receiver Marlon Brown are gone among the key contributors -- the Bulldogs should be able to score with as much efficiency as last season’s group that set a school record with 529 points. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo already knows what players including Murray, Gurley, tailback Keith Marshall and Mitchell can do. This spring, players like offensive MVP Chris Conley, G-Day standout Jonathon Rumph and Green also flashed the potential to make the offense even more potent.

Fall questions

1. Starting quickly: A defense that must replace 12 key performers was a pleasant surprise this spring. But can Todd Grantham’s rebuilt defense reload quickly enough to hold its own against the likes of Clemson, South Carolina and LSU? Georgia faces all of those teams before the end of September. Grantham’s defense underperformed a season ago despite a wealth of NFL-ready talent. The talent is still there, but the defensive coaches have their work cut out with so many inexperienced players needing to be ready for the season-defining early schedule.

2. Offensive line rotation: With Burnette out for the entire spring and offensive tackle John Theus out for the first half of the practices, offensive line coach Will Friend had plenty of reason to shuffle his lineup -- and that’s exactly what he did. Friend’s group returns everyone from last season, including four players who started all 14 games, but he did not seem prepared to guarantee any starting jobs at the end of the spring. It’s possible that the shuffling could continue in August, and he might allow a greater number of linemen to play once the season begins.

3. Sack specialists: Jones led the nation with 24.5 tackles for a loss, 14.5 sacks and seven forced fumbles last season while serving as the Bulldogs' top pass-rusher. Sophomore Jordan Jenkins appears to be first in line to replace him -- and he has already informed his predecessor that he intends to eventually break his school sack record -- but Jones set an awfully high bar for Jenkins to attempt to clear. In order to make Grantham's 3-4 defense function correctly, the Bulldogs need Jenkins and some of the defensive linemen who will be stepping into larger roles to keep applying pressure to opposing quarterbacks.

SEC spring preview: Eastern Division

February, 25, 2013
2/25/13
10:17
AM ET
We're taking a look at key storylines for all seven teams in the SEC Eastern Division.

Chris will take a look at the main issues in the Western Division on Tuesday.

FLORIDA GATORS

Spring start: March 13

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding at linebacker: The Gators have to start figuring out the linebacker situation. Do they go with redshirt junior Michael Taylor in the middle, who’s a run-stuffer but has to come off the field in passing downs? Or do they try sophomore Antonio Morrison, who played outside at 218 pounds as a freshman and has hopefully bulked up a bit? The most likely scenario is Morrison, which means UF has to find a weakside linebacker. That could be freshmen early enrollee Daniel McMillian or Alex Anzalone. The strongside starter should be, at least entering the spring, redshirt junior Neiron Ball.

2. Robinson's growth: One of the most scrutinized players this spring will be receiver Demarcus Robinson. He was the only one of UF’s five receiver signees to enroll early and he’ll be given every chance to win a starting spot. UF’s receivers have been below average for the past three seasons and the Gators desperately need someone to become a consistent playmaker. The 6-foot-2, 195-pound Robinson, who caught 53 passes for more than 1,000 yards and scored 15 touchdowns as a senior at Fort Valley (Ga.) Peach County, is going to be under a lot of pressure to produce.

3. Driskel's confidence: Quarterback Jeff Driskel returns for his second season as a starter, and it’ll be interesting to see how much he improves on his decision-making, release and accuracy. He’s sure to benefit from not splitting reps 50-50 any longer. But just as important as Driskel’s development is what happens behind him with redshirt junior Tyler Murphy and redshirt freshman Skyler Mornhinweg. Neither has thrown a pass in a college game. Why is that important? Because Driskel has not been able to stay healthy in his first two seasons in Gainesville. He missed starts as a freshman and sophomore because of ankle injuries. UF was lucky in 2012 to have Jacoby Brissett, who had played significantly as John Brantley’s backup in 2011. With Brissett transferring to NC State, the Gators no longer have that luxury.

-- Mike DiRocco, GatorNation

GEORGIA BULLDOGS

Spring start: March 2

Spring game: April 6

What to watch:
1. Rebuilding the defense: Georgia begins its transition to a completely new collection of defensive talent this spring. No longer are Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo and John Jenkins on the roster. In fact, the Bulldogs must replace a total of 12 defensive players who were either full-time starters or key contributors, and at some positions, the possible replacements have little to no college experience. That makes this a pivotal time for defensive coordinator Todd Grantham to begin identifying which players will fill those roles, as the Bulldogs will have little margin for error when they open the season against Clemson’s explosive offense Aug. 31. Some names to watch this spring: Josh Harvey-Clemons, Sheldon Dawson and Jonathan Taylor.

2. Developing the youngsters: The good news for Grantham and the other defensive coaches is that they brought in a number of January enrollees who should be able to help immediately. Junior college transfer Chris Mayes and John Atkins hope to fill the void left by Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at noseguard. Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter will immediately enter the mix at linebacker. And cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger can help address Georgia’s depth shortage in a secondary that lost four key players. Georgia’s 13 early enrollees -- more than twice as many January enrollees as Georgia coach Mark Richt has ever brought in before -- will help fill needs on both sides of the ball, but the defense is where the newcomers were most necessary.

3. Offensive line reps: For the most part, Georgia used the same starting lineup along its offensive line throughout the 2012 season and each of those starters should return this fall. But two of those starters -- right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus -- underwent surgeries during the offseason and will miss all or part of spring practice. There was a good chance that offensive line coach Will Friend was going to deploy more players in his line rotation this fall anyway, but the valuable practice reps that will be available with Burnette and Theus sidelined might make a deeper rotation even more likely. Someone still has to take advantage of the opportunity, however.

-- David Ching, DawgNation

KENTUCKY WILDCATS

Spring start: March 18

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Getting used to new coaches: New coaches are roaming Kentucky’s football facility this spring. Mark Stoops brings a more defense-minded philosophy to Lexington, but his coaches will have to get things going on offense if the Wildcats are going to improve in 2013. There are always awkward moments when transitioning to a new staff, but now’s the time to create valuable trust on both sides.

2. Finding offensive playmakers: Stoops might have a strong defensive background, but the Wildcats have to find answers on offense. Injuries were an issue last year, but for two straight years the Wildcats had real problems finding consistent playmakers on offense. Quarterback Maxwell Smith returns, but he needs more than just wide receiver La’Rod King to help him. Getting running back Josh Clemons back would be big, but expect the coaches to turn to a young group of receivers and running backs.

3. Tougher team: One thing Stoops wants from his players is a tougher identity. Stoops wants to build a stronger team from the ground up. He’s taking a page from Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin when it comes to preparing his new team. This spring, we’ll see just how much of an emphasis the coaches put on the weight room and conditioning before hitting the football side of things.

MISSOURI TIGERS

Spring start: March 12

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. Josey's rehab: The Tigers will be keeping tabs on running back Henry Josey, who missed all of 2012 after suffering a devastating knee injury midway through the 2011 season. He was the Big 12’s best running back before his injury and Mizzou needs him back. The staff has had to be patient, but this could be a crucial time in his rehab, as he looks to get his football legs back.

2. Rebuilding the front seven: Mizzou must replace a lot in its front seven. Star defensive tackle Sheldon Richardson’s absence leaves a gaping hole up front, while linebackers Will Ebner and Zaviar Gooden must be replaced. Lucas Vincent will be first in line to take Richardson’s spot, while Darvin Ruise, Donovan Bonner and Michael Scherer are three players to watch at linebacker.

3. Toughening up: Injuries ravaged Mizzou’s offense last year, but it’s clear that Mizzou wasn’t in the playing shape that it would have liked to be in during its first year in the SEC. Injuries are part of the game, but gaining that toughness factor this spring will go a long way for the Tigers in 2013. The SEC is more than just a grind, and the Tigers found out the hard way that conditioning in this league is a little different than in the Big 12.

SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS

Spring start: March 5

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. New backfield options: Marcus Lattimore and Kenny Miles are gone, so the Gamecocks will have to turn to their younger backs. Brandon Wilds missed the 2012 season with an ankle injury but should return this spring. Rising sophomore Mike Davis has all the tools to be a big-time player for the Gamecocks and could be the top option in the Gamecocks’ backfield. Shifty Shon Carson also returns from a knee injury, so South Carolina will have a solid group to work with this spring.

2. QB controversy: Quarterback Connor Shaw might be tabbed as the starter, but with him out for the spring, Dylan Thompson will take the first-team reps. Thompson proved to be very valuable last year, and both will play this fall. Thompson has become one of the most vocal players on the team and is a strong leader. A good spring could bring some real controversy to the position.

3. Holes at linebacker: South Carolina will be without its two-deep at linebacker and “Spur” DeVonte Holloman is gone. That means there’s a lot of work to be done when it comes to finding viable replacements. Sharrod Golightly will get the early crack at the Spur, and keep an eye on Kaiwan Lews, who was a true freshman last year and has a lot of potential to work with.

TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS

Spring start: March 9

Spring game: April 20

What to watch:
1. New coaches on the block: With Butch Jones in town, the Vols have to get used to their third head coach in five springs. Jones and his staff have helped bring some much-needed energy to the program since arriving, but now it’s time to develop vital on-field chemistry between the coaches and players.

2. Receiving help: The Vols’ offense took at major hit at receiver. Juniors Justin Hunter and Cordarrelle Patterson made the leap to the NFL, while deep threat Zach Rogers and tight end Mychal Rivera graduated. Tennessee will now turn to a host of inexperienced receiving targets, including rising sophomore Alton Howard and early enrollee Paul Harris.

3. Quarterback battle: With Tyler Bray leaving for the NFL, Tennessee will work with rising junior Justin Worley and redshirt freshman Nathan Peterman. Worley has the edge when it comes to game experience, but with a new staff, this battle will be wide-open. They will also need to make strides before freshmen Joshua Dobbs and Riley Ferguson get on campus this summer.

VANDERBILT COMMODORES

Spring start: March 15

Spring game: April 13

What to watch:
1. Replacing Rodgers: Quarterback Jordan Rodgers is gone. The good news is Austyn Carta-Samuels has good experience after starting two years at Wyoming before transferring to Vandy. Redshirt freshman Patton Robinette is someone the coaches also are excited about, especially with his dual-threat ability, and should really push Carta-Samuels the whole spring.

2. Running back battles: The Commodores lost star running back Zac Stacy, so veteran Wesley Tate, who has bounced around positions, and rising sophomore Brian Kimbrow, who has the do-everything look to him at running back, will share reps. Warren Norman and Jerron Seymour also return, making for quite the talented backfield.

3. Keeping the edge: Now that another very successful season under James Franklin is over, the Dores have to continue to keep the edge that got them to where they are. It might sound like a broken record, but Vanderbilt still has to prove that it isn’t the Vandy of old. People are certainly taking the Dores more seriously, but keeping that edge is important for more growth.

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