Richt Confident in 2003

Walking off the Georgia practice fields during the first week of preseason drills, Coach Mark Richt turned to sports information director Claude Felton and issued a daunting appraisal of his team.

Walking off the Georgia practice fields during the first week of preseason drills, Coach Mark Richt turned to sports information director Claude Felton and issued a daunting appraisal of his team:

"We're in trouble,'' said a grim Richt.

Then same the somewhat comforting reply from Felton: "You said the same thing last year.''

Last year, of course, Richt guided the Bulldogs to a No. 3 finish in the final polls, a 13-1 record and, of most importance to long-suffering Georgia fans, the program's first SEC championship in 20 years.

When 2002 juniors Musa Smith, Johnathan Sullivan and Chris Clemons joined a large senior class in leaving the program, Richt was left to replace 13 starters, including eight on offense.

It is an annual summer ritual for any college football coach to look upon a still-raw collection of players, many of whom are still learning the playbook, then turn his gaze to a calendar that shows a season-opener racing ever closer, and react with a slight case of panic.

For Richt, the preseason concerns are legitimate.

Georgia must replace its entire starting offensive line, linebackers, leading rusher and leading receiver from last year's Southeastern Conference championship team.

There will be no juniors or seniors on this year's offensive line. The starting running back, Tony Milton, and fullback, Jeremy Thomas, each have only one career start.

In the SEC, where a running game is a standard requirement for success, the new starting running backs and young offensive line are a scary combination.

The concerns grew with the injury list in the preseason. Rover Kentrell Curry, one of the cornerstones of the defense, was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his right leg and could miss the first three games. Several defensive tackles suffered practice injuries. Freshman tailback Kregg Lumpkin pulled his hamstring, jeopardizing his status for the Aug. 30 season opener at Clemson.

Also, off-the-field problems in the offseason will force seven players open the year on suspensions ranging from one to three games. Of most concern against Clemson, which boasts a talented corps of receivers who boast good size, is three of the suspended players are cornerbacks Tim Jennings, Demario Minter and B.J. Fields.

Finally, a possible starter, offensive lineman Randall Swoopes, transferred to Georgia Military College. Swoopes, one of four players arrested on misdemeanor drug charges, would have been suspended for two games if he had not transferred.

The hits from the 2002 depth chart are significant.

Even so, many preseason magazines and polls see Georgia as picking up where it left off with its Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State.

SEC media who gathered in Birmingham in late July picked Georgia to defend its Eastern Division title before falling to Auburn in the SEC championship game. Sports Illustrated picked the Bulldogs fifth in the nation, higher than any other conference team. Other magazines, including The Sporting News, picked Georgia to win its division. The lofty projections are based in part on a solid returning corps of all-star players, including defensive end David Pollack, quarterback David Greene, receiver Fred Gibson, kicker Billy Bennett and tight end Ben Watson. There also is reason to believe some of the gaping holes — especially on the offensive line and at linebacker — will be filled by players at least as talented as the 2002 starters.

If such players as middle linebacker Odell Thurman and center Russ Tanner mature quickly in their first years as starters, then other new starters around them can more easily fit into their roles.

Some observers believe this year's offensive line might be as good as last year's by the end of the year, and the new linebackers might also soon match 2002 stars Tony Gilbert and Boss Bailey as play-makers.

Unless the preseason injuries at defensive tackle are more serious than believed and Curry is held out longer than expected with his leg injury, the defense may be strong enough to carry the team early while the offensive line and running game gain momentum.

There were concerns that the off-the-field problems, which included nine players temporarily being declared ineligible for selling their SEC and Sugar Bowl championship rings, would cause distractions that could carry into the season.

Instead, Richt says the problems helped the team move past the stage of reveling in the celebration of the 2002 season.

"There were a lot of people patting us on the back and a lot of people telling us how good we are and all that, and too much of that can soften a team,'' Richt said.

"Some of the controversy that we've been through, I think it has helped us get our minds focused on what is most important.''

In fact, even though he walked off the practice fields on some days worried about the young players who must move into key roles this season, on other days Richt could not contain his enthusiasm about the talent and good attitude.

There could be growing pains on the offensive line early in the season. If Tony Milton is at least adequate at tailback and the line can give Greene and D.J. Shockley decent time to pass, the offense could at least approach the production of last year's unit which led the SEC in scoring.

Richt says he wants a balanced offense, but the passing game looks to be the strength of the unit. Georgia lost leading receiver Terrence Edwards, but still has excellent depth at the position.

Gibson is a preseason first-team All-SEC pick, but in any week Damien Gary, Michael Johnson, Reggie Brown or Watson could emerge as the receiving leader. Freshman Sean Bailey may immediately move into the playing rotation.

Yet another receiver, redshirt freshman Cedric Haywood, was the surprise of the spring and was an early standout in preseason drills.

There also is excellent depth at tight end, where Robert Brannon, Martrez Milner and freshman Leonard Pope could all play behind Watson.

The obvious pick as the leader on defense is Pollack, named by the SEC coaches as the conference's Player of the Year after he led the league with 14 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss. If more blockers are assigned to Pollack, Will Thompson could emerge at the other end as the pass-rush leader.

Early concerns about the loss of three cornerbacks to suspensions are eased somewhat by having seniors Decory Bryant and Bruce Thornton back as starters. Greg Blue will move up at rover if Curry is not ready to play against Clemson. Free safety Sean Jones appears set to emerge as another all-star candidate in the secondary.

After the opener at Clemson and a home game against Middle Tennessee State, Georgia plays four tough conference opponents in five weeks — South Carolina, a road game at LSU, Alabama and a road game at Tennessee.

If it came manage no worse than a split of the four games, Georgia could still be in the SEC East race when it plays Florida and Auburn in November. No team has won the East with more than one conference loss since 1992, but there may be a power shift to the West this season, possibly setting the stage for a team to win the East with two losses.

"If we can stay together when we cross some adversity, we're going to be all right,'' Richt said. Top Stories