Smith hopes he is past his history of injuries

Smith tries to get back on track for 2002 season.

Musa Smith knows he is in the spotlight — even before the curtain to the 2002 season has been raised.

If any player is the biggest key to Georgia contending for a championship this year, it is Smith, who is the Bulldogs' only experienced tailback but also is the team's biggest injury question.

"I've been hearing things like that,'' Smith said this week.

For Smith, the injury issue is growing old. He missed two games in his 2000 freshman season with a knee injury. He missed most of the 2001 spring with a broken bone in his foot. He then was limited to five starts last year with a nagging groin injury that also kept him out of spring drills.

When full speed, Smith has been a difference-maker. As a freshman, he earned Southeastern Conference Player of the Week honors after rushing for 144 yards on 21 carries against Mississippi. He opened his sophomore season with 158 yards rushing and three touchdowns against Arkansas State, followed by 76 yards against South Carolina and 95 yards against Arkansas.

With a healthy Smith, Georgia appears to have a full offensive arsenal. There are seniors across the offensive line. With Terrence Edwards, Fred Gibson and Damien Gary, Georgia's top three receivers rank with any team in the conference. Ben Watson is a projected star at tight end. Even quarterback looks to be a deep position, with starter David Greene backed up by D.J. Shockley.

But without Smith, who will run the ball?

There is no Verron Haynes waiting in the wings at fullback to salvage the season. On its preseason depth chart, redshirt freshman Tony Milton is listed as Smith's top backup. Other possible options are true freshman Michael Cooper and sophomores Ronnie Powell and Mike Gilliam.

Of that list of backups at tailback, only Gilliam — with 10 carries for 29 yards — carried the ball in a 2001 game.

That's why Georgia coaches are anxious to see Smith in uniform when practice for the Aug. 31 season opener against Clemson begins the first week of August. While Coach Mark Richt expressed unreserved optimism about Smith's status this week, the junior is more cautious.

"I'm still rehabbing,'' Smith said this week. "Everything is coming along good. I feel good. We'll just have to see how it is in two-a-days .You really can't tell with this kind of injury how it is.''

Smith has good reason to be apprehensive. He often thought he was close to full speed last season, only to pull up in pain when he tested the inflammed groin in practice or a game.

Richt was especially worried when Smith still was not recovered for spring practice. The coach's optimism returned when Smith was cleared by the team's medical staff soon after the end of spring drills.

"Musa Smith is ready to go,'' Richt proclaimed to reporters this week in Macon. "There are a slew of younger players who will get the opportunity to prove what they can do when they are in camp. I'd say the only position that is solid is Musa No. 1. Everybody behind him is going to be competing for playing time.''

Added Richt: "Now that we know he's healthy, he's our No. 1 guy and everybody else is trying to earn playing time.''

Richt's confidence in Smith grew as Smith's offseason work intensified.

"He is straining this summer,'' Richt said. "He's not in pads with the ball in his hands breaking tackles, but he is doing a lot of cutting and a lot of full-speed running. He feels great. He feels ready to go.''

Added linebacker Tony Gilbert: "From what I've seen, he looks 100 percent, the way he's running and doing the pass drills. I remember in the spring sometime he couldn't even do the drills without worrying about what was going to happen. Right now he's pushing himself as hard as he can.''

Greene said Smith "is really looking great. His speed is back to normal. He has just as much explosiveness as before.''

Smith's long road back included extensive pool work, in addition to running and work in the weight room.

Richt says he has been told Smith should not have to worry about a recurrence of the injury, but Smith needs to make it through his first practice in full pads to believe he has completed his comeback.

"I'm pretty much full speed now,'' he said before adding "We'll just see how it is for the duration and two-a-days. Right now, everything feels good.''

Charles Odum can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com


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