BIRMINGHAM, Ala. — With NCAA rules now allowing freshmen to be on campus for a month before fall practice begins, today's official reporting date for Georgia's newcomers is more of a formality than a welcome-to-campus affair. Even so, with freshmen officially due today and varsity players due Tuesday, the countdown to the Bulldogs' Aug. 31 season opener against Clemson picks up momentum.
Coach Mark Richt returns 16 starters for a team that Thursday was picked by Southeastern Conference media to finish second in the East Division, behind Tennessee but ahead of Florida. Even so, Richt says there is great need for first-year players to make an immediate contribution.
This signing class includes 13 linemen, and from that strength will come much of the opportunity for freshmen to play this season.
"I see a lot of freshmen playing, because I know a year from now a lot of those guys are going to have to play a lot for us,'' Richt said this week. "There are some spots they may have to make a big impact.''
Georgia returns four starting offensive linemen and could start seniors across the line. After six seniors there is little experience returning for 2003, so it will be important for Richt and offensive line coach Neil Callaway to find immediate depth from such freshmen as Antonio Mercier, Max Jean-Giles, Daniel Inman, Bartley Miller and Randall Swoopes.
Similarly, there will be a need for such defensive linemen as Kedric Golston and Darrius Swain to provide bulk and depth.
Some Georgia varsity players, including quarterback David Greene and linebacker Tony Gilbert, have said Golston has made an impressive first impression with his size and maturity in informal summer workouts.
Another freshman in the spotlight will be running back Michael Cooper of Screven County. At 6-feet and 215 pounds, Cooper is more of a power runner than a breakaway back, so another freshman — Tyson Browning of Oconee County and Fork Union Military Academy — may have a chance to show he can be a change-of-pace to the power game of starter Musa Smith.
Richt expects Clemson and South Carolina to provide early season tests to the depth of Georgia's secondary, so help also will be needed from first-year defensive backs.
"Some cornerbacks have to make plays,'' Richt said. "Clemson and South Carolina may play four- and five-wide receiver sets. We're going to be playing some true freshmen right away.''
LaGrange High's Olaolu Sanni-Osomo and two other incoming freshmen — Bryan McClendon of Atlanta and B.J. Fields of Camden County — will compete for playing time in the secondary.
Even at receiver, where Georgia has good depth and talent, Richt is leaving open the possibility of a freshman forcing his way into a playing rotation. "Just like at receiver where (as a freshman last season) Fred Gibson proved he can make plays, there could be a couple receivers who have an opportunity to prove they can make plays,'' Richt said.
At least three signees — Athlete Martrez Milner, running back Reshard Dudley of Marianna, Fla., and tight end Leonard Pope of Americus — have failed to qualify academically.
It is possible one of the three — possibly Milner — could be admitted as a partial qualifier, meaning he could practice with the team but would not be eligible to play this season.
Richt made two late additions to the signing class — running back/receiver Cedric Haywood of Macon and Christopher Hickman of Wheeler High. Haywood is expected to be looked at first at receiver, though he rushed for 1,579 yards at Central Fellowship Christian Academy in Macon last year. Hickman was a two-way player at Wheeler as a running back and linebacker.
NOTES: Only two Georgia players — offensive tackle Jon Stinchcomb and linebacker Boss Bailey — were named to the preseason All-SEC first team by SEC media. Stinchcomb received the most votes (75) of any offensive player from the 80 media members who participated in the poll. Bailey received 57 votes.
Named to the All-SEC second team were offensive guard Kevin Breedlove, receiver Fred Gibson and linebacker Tony Gilbert. Tennessee was picked first in the SEC East with 41 first-place votes and 136 total points. Georgia and Florida each received 19 first-place votes, with Georgia (175) edging the Gators (197) for second place, followed by South Carolina, Kentucky and Vanderbilt. LSU was picked to win the West, followed by Alabama, Mississippi, Auburn, Arkansas and Mississippi State.
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