ATHENS, Ga. — Musa Smith is out with a groin injury. Tony Milton is recovering from shoulder surgery. Verron Haynes and Jasper Sanks are awaiting the NFL draft. Kenny Bailey has moved to defense.
Suddenly, the name atop Georgia's depth chart at tailback for spring practice is Mike Gilliam, who is wearing No. 26 and a wide grin.
"It's the opportunity of a lifetime,'' Gilliam said this week. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I would come into spring practice at the end of my freshman year, going into my sophomore year, and be No. 1 on the depth chart.
"It's a great opportunity, so I'm just going to take it a day at a time and do my best and let the coaches make their decision.''
With Smith now likely to be held out of contact drills for all of spring drills in an attempt to allow him to fully recover from the groin injury that hampered his 2001 season, Georgia is left with Gilliam, former defensive back Ronnie Powell and walk-on Sharard Pritchett of Atlanta as the top three tailbacks.
"We're giving some other guys reps, but Gilliam is getting the lion's share of it,'' said Coach Mark Richt. "It is a big workload.''
Gilliam, only 5-foot-10 and 180 pounds, looks more like a receiver than a typical Georgia tailback, but he wants to use his size to his advantage. Georgia has become accustomed to lining up power backs. Gilliam, who rushed for 29 yards on 10 carries in limited exposure as a freshman, is more of a scatback. He hopes he can fill the role that Warrick Dunn played in Richt's offense at Florida State.
"I'm supposed to make people miss,'' he said. "I'm not expected to bulldoze people and drag them for five or 10 yards like Herschel Walker would have done. I'm supposed to outrun them and make them miss.''
Added Gilliam: "I think that's to my advantage a little bit more because it is not expected of a Georgia back. Musa is a downhill runner, Verron Haynes was a downhill runner, Jasper Sanks was a downhill runner. Now I'm more of a scatback type and I just have to make the most of it.''
Joining the tailback competition in the fall will be freshmen Michael Cooper of Screven County High and Reshard Dudley of Marianna, Fla. Tyson Browning of Oconee County — also in the scatback mold at only 170 pounds — could land at tailback.
Richt wasn't happy with Gilliam's running in Saturday's scrimmage, but Richt said the sophomore "did much better'' on Monday. Tuesday's practice was cancelled by rain, and the Bulldogs will practice today and Thursday before taking a week off for spring break. The G-Day spring game is set for April 6.
If Smith and Milton are healthy and the freshmen can contribute immediately, then Georgia should have good depth at the position in the fall. But now, especially with Smith's lingering injury, Gilliam has the chance to take a lead in the competition.
"I knew I was going to have to be ready for spring practice,'' Gilliam said.
"I knew if I wasn't in shape I would be in great shape by the end. I haven't been hurt yet, but being my size I have to read and react to avoid the big hits.''
Added Gilliam: "I hope Musa can get well, but if not and the coaches look to me, then I'm ready.''
Charles can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com