Spring forward

ATHENS, Ga. -- We're less than a week from Georgia's first spring practice Saturday -- the time when most of the Bulldogs' 13 January enrollees will participate in their first college practice. However, one of them has already had a taste, and it was a bit bloody.

Ryne Rankin grinned and recalled that Georgia's coaching staff "threw me right in to the wolves" when he joined the team in December to participate in a handful of bowl practices. The inside linebacker took part in the hard-nosed inside running drill against the running backs and offensive linemen. And he followed some advice from All-America linebacker Jarvis Jones, which led to his first fight in practice.

"The linemen are hitting me after plays and I'm like, 'All right,' " Rankin chuckled. "Then I got in a little scuffle when we went on an eight-play drive with [fullback] Quayvon Hicks. Jarvis told me not to back down from nobody. You've got to set the tone."

Everyone involved agreed that Rankin was lost in his first few practices, which is perfectly normal for a young player in his position. Looking back, though, he believes it was an eminently valuable experience, just as the March practices will be for his fellow early enrollees who hope to contribute this fall.

"The experience is great," Rankin said. "Coming up here in bowl practice, I learned a lot. I feel like I got a better lead than other early enrollees. I know how practice is. I was already part of the family, so I got my little initiation in, and I figured out how the workouts are going to be -- fast-paced and stuff like that."

All of the early enrollees hope to carve out a role for the 2013 season, just like Rankin, although positional needs are not as great at some spots. With Georgia's entire starting offensive line returning this fall, early enrollees Josh Cardiello and Aulden Bynum seem like redshirt candidates. Likewise, quarterback Brice Ramsey understands that his job this year is to study under Aaron Murray and learn the offense while the fifth-year senior completes his career.

"I'm happy Aaron's coming back. That's like the best situation for me," Ramsey said. "I can come in and redshirt or back him up, it doesn't matter. Either way I'll be learning from him and just adding the preparation before my time comes."

Otherwise, there is immediate playing time to be won, and the newcomers believe they can claim their share -- particularly on defense.

Chris Mayes and John Atkins have an opportunity to play immediately on the defensive line. Rankin and the versatile Reggie Carter know they have a chance to jump into the mix at linebacker. And cornerback Reggie Wilkerson and safeties Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger clearly see the holes in the secondary after four key seniors completed their careers in the fall.

That's why spring is so important for the newest Bulldogs. They understand that the coaches are not going to play them in the fall until they demonstrate that they grasp their positional roles. Spring practices will provide a head start for August's preseason practices.

"I've seen people that were outstanding in high school and I was like, 'Wow, he's on the sideline' and what-not," Carter said. "But if you don't learn the playbook, you're not going to play."

Offseason conditioning workouts can be intimidating at first, although most players eventually settle into the weight room routine. Same with classes, tutoring and the sometimes-demanding schedule that UGA athletes face. But each player mentioned the playbook as the No. 1 obstacle he must clear before he will have a legitimate chance to play.

"Corey Moore and Damian Swann, they've been helping me with the playbook a lot," Wilkerson said. "And coach Mike McDonald, the [graduate] assistant, he's been helping me a lot."

Once they grasp where they're supposed to be and when they're supposed to be there, the freshmen can truly compete for playing time. The quicker they make that transition, the more likely they will see the field this fall.

"We just have to go out there and work," Rankin said. "Reggie's a good player and we've got everybody else here -- Brandon Burrows and Reggie and you've got Amarlo [Herrera] and you've got everybody else. So you've got to compete. This is the SEC.

"If I get the plays down, then I'll be ready to go. You can be bigger, faster, stronger, but if you don't know your stuff, you ain't going to play."