Starters emerge from battles

With sizeable question marks lingering after spring practice, Dogs moving forward

Updated: August 26, 2012, 9:04 PM ET
By David Ching | DawgNation

ATHENS, Ga. -- David Andrews entered preseason camp with a point to prove.

Consider that effort a success.

Andrews' status as starting center was one of the biggest question marks when the Bulldogs opened practice this month, but coach Mark Richt said Andrews' improved play was one of the most positive developments in camp.

"We went into camp hoping that he would be the guy, I would say," Richt said. " ... I think it's the best combination for Georgia for him to be the center, and I thought he did a good job."

The Bulldogs return 15 starters from last season's SEC East championship club, so there aren't many holes to fill on a team that opens the season Saturday afternoon against Buffalo. Center Ben Jones' departure for the NFL created perhaps the biggest void, as he was a four-year starter, one of the Bulldogs' emotional leaders and the only player with much experience at his position.

Andrews did his best to emulate Jones in the spring, but there was only so much an inexperienced sophomore could do right away. This summer he wanted to perform better than he did in those spring practices, so he put in the work during summer workouts to be ready to take a firm hold of the job when camp opened.

"I really didn't want to go into the first game with the coaches going, 'Oh, crap, what are we going to do in there?' or even my teammates," Andrews said. "I just went out with a point to prove this camp, and I think I accomplished my goal and really kind of solidified my position in there."

Richt agreed with that assessment.

"I think David Andrews has had a good camp," Richt said. "To me he's solidified that job."

Andrews might have been the biggest question mark, but he was not the only player who needed a solid preseason to become a starter. Here is how some of the other closely watched position battles are shaking out with the season opener only a few days away:

• Offensive tackle: Just as no Georgia player has started a game at center, the Bulldogs also do not have a player who has started at offensive tackle.

Left tackle Kenarious Gates has started 12 games at guard, but has held up well while protecting quarterback Aaron Murray's blind side. Meanwhile John Theus has worked as the first-team right tackle all month and is in position to become just the third true freshman offensive tackle to start Georgia's opener since 1973.

Gates said he has been pleased with the way the line progressed against Georgia's stout defensive line this month.

"We've had some good practices with the O-line communicating, because we know we've got to develop that strong unit on the team," Gates said. "That's the biggest group on the team, the O-line, and we're taking the responsibility that we've got to step up."

• Tailback: SEC Freshman of the Year Isaiah Crowell's dismissal was the UGA football headline of the summer, but the Bulldogs appear to be in good shape at the position despite Crowell's absence.

[+] EnlargeBrandon Boykin
Jeff Griffith/US PresswireDamian Swann appears poised to take over where Philadelphia Eagle Brandon Boykin (above) left off for Georgia on the field.
Freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall have excited their coaches and teammates with their potential, and sophomore Ken Malcome will likely start the opener after performing well in spring and August practices. Richard Samuel will also contribute at tailback and fullback.

"I'm sure they'll be very anxious, be very excited," running backs coach Bryan McClendon said of Gurley and Marshall. "But those guys, they've been in the spotlight before. Those guys came up in it and handled it well. They're both real even-keel guys, but you just want to make sure that their focus stays right. But that hasn't been an issue now."

• Cornerback: If Jones was the spiritual leader of Georgia's offense last season, cornerback Brandon Boykin ranked among the top leaders on defense. Now he's contending for a starting spot with the NFL's Philadelphia Eagles, but the Bulldogs have a few options to fill his starting spot.

Seniors Branden Smith and Sanders Commings -- once he returns from a two-game suspension -- figure to be the starters, but Damian Swann, Malcolm Mitchell, Devin Bowman and freshman Sheldon Dawson have all proved themselves as capable performers.

Swann, in particular, seems ready to take over for Boykin as the nickelback who plays physically against opponents' slot receivers.

"He's a guy that I think as we move forward can be really good at that position," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "He's physical, he's done a good job in the weight room because to play in there you've got to have some physicality to you. & And when you play that position, the closer you get to the ball, the quicker things happen so you have to have a little bit of quick reaction and he has that."

• Defensive end: DeAngelo Tyson was a steady-if-unspectacular performer on Georgia's defensive line last year, so Grantham decided to shift outside linebacker Cornelius Washington to the line in order to bring some extra pass-rushing ability to the line.

While Washington will still play outside linebacker in some situations -- bringing Garrison Smith and Ray Drew, among others, into the picture at defensive end -- Grantham likes the versatility that Washington's shift brings to the defense.

"When he puts his hand in the dirt as a true defensive lineman, now you have some athletic ability, a little bit of a mismatch sometimes on guards in space," Grantham said. "So that's a benefit, and then because of his body type and athletic ability, he can still play outside backer or on the edge of guys and give you some pass rush out there. So he's going to play both in the rotation and I think he's going to have a really good year."

• Tight end: Orson Charles and Aron White were key figures in Georgia's passing game, so their absence creates questions over how the Bulldogs will deploy their tight ends this fall. But expected starter Arthur Lynch and reserves Jay Rome and Ty Flournoy-Smith believe they can hold down the job effectively.

Richt said Flournoy-Smith is still adapting to the speed of college football, so if the Bulldogs continue to use the tight end as they have in the past, it's up to Lynch and Rome to perform capably enough that Georgia won't have to phase out the tight end in favor of other personnel groups.

"The bottom line was both of those guys are going to play," Richt said. "Both of them have to play."