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Building on defense

ATHENS, Ga. -- After Thursday, Georgia won't practice again until August.

It has been a valuable month for the Bulldogs, with several young players emerging on a rebuilding defense and, most importantly, no serious injuries that might linger into the fall.

We already have a decent idea of what the 2013 Bulldogs might look like when they take the field Aug. 31 at Clemson. But what remains to be seen once they return to the practice field for that all-important preseason camp?

The biggest questions involve how the depth chart shakes out at a handful of positions.

"There's just so many candidates for playing time right now, more than I can ever remember, on both sides of the ball," Georgia coach Mark Richt said after Saturday's G-Day game. "Mostly defense, but there's still some playing time up for grabs and starting jobs up for grabs on offense, as well."

The coaching staff this spring began developing plans for positions that lost key players -- and on the defense, that's essentially every position -- but the defensive line and secondary should feature particularly fierce competition in August.

In both cases, that's because of players who aren't yet on campus.

Early enrollee freshman Tray Matthews became the talk of Georgia's spring practice with big hits from his free safety position. He'll have company from five fellow defensive back signees once Shaq Wiggins, Brendan Langley, Paris Bostick and juco transfers Shaq Fluker and Kennar Johnson enroll this summer.

Cornerbacks Damian Swann and Sheldon Dawson, along with Matthews and fellow safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, seem to be in the driver's seat for starting spots, but the newcomers -- keep an eye on Wiggins, Georgia's highest-rated 2013 signee in ESPN's rankings, and Fluker -- will have their say in August.

"We've got to see what they can do," defensive backs coach Scott Lakatos said. "It's one thing to play wherever they play, but it's another thing to get here, put the pads on and start going against our offense every day and all the factors you take into consideration with what we're doing defensively. It's a little too early to judge those guys. We've got to wait and see what they do once they get rolling."

New defensive line coach Chris Wilson's rotation remains something of a mystery. He gained confidence this spring in Sterling Bailey and Mike Thornton, and Garrison Smith was already a proven performer. But others like Jonathan Taylor, Ray Drew, Chris Mayes and John Atkins still have something to prove.

"When you've got guys who are athletic and know the system, know our defense, it kind of makes you dynamic," Wilson said. "And that's what we've got to get to if we want to win it all."

The competition will only grow this summer once Toby Johnson, the No. 4 player on ESPN's 2013 Junior College 100, arrives on campus. Johnson suffered a serious knee injury last fall, but is well on the road to recovery.

"He was here for G-Day and he's right at 80 percent healthy and we're expecting him, obviously once things are completed academically at Hutchinson [Community College], to come right in," Wilson said. "Hopefully he's ready by June to come in and start summer workouts."

As with those defensive positions, the offensive line remains something of a question mark as spring draws to a close.

The Bulldogs return everybody from a season ago, so offensive line coach Will Friend's issue is not replacing departed players. He must decide how he wants to deploy them, and whether he wants to alter the lineup that he barely strayed from for the entire 2012 season: Kenarious Gates at left tackle, Dallas Lee at left guard, David Andrews at center, Chris Burnette at right guard and John Theus at right tackle.

Spring practice was full of experimentation for Friend, whose group entered last season as the biggest question mark on Georgia's roster and was serviceable, but rarely dominant. The ups and downs continued this spring, with Friend coming away from G-Day dissatisfied with the starting line's performance.

"I didn't think the [first] team played with enough effort. We're disappointed in that," Friend said. "It looked like they were trying to just get through the day -- started out [fast] early and it looked like they thought the day was over."

Georgia's overall offensive depth chart is largely settled entering the fall, but the offensive line could be the one area to watch in August. Friend has taken a close look at reserves Xzavier Ward, Mark Beard, Austin Long and Watts Dantzler this spring and said he is perfectly willing to reshuffle the starting lineup if one of them seizes a job.

"I guess if there is a time to mess with it, it's right now," Friend said. "So we just wanted to take a look at some things. That way there's some guys that have played some different spots where if we need it in fall camp, it's not the first time that they've done it. Those are some plusses."