ATHENS, Ga. - All it took was one big hit from Robert Geathers to let everybody know that Georgia's practice intensity had moved a notch with the first full-speed, full-pads session Monday morning.
When redshirt freshman tailback Tony Milton took the ball and took a step to his left, he immediately knew he was in trouble.
In describing the play after practice, Milton spread his arms to their full width and said "There was a hole about this big, and (Geathers) was sitting in it by himself. He got me straight-on.''
Tailback Musa Smith admitted he was grateful it was not his turn to carry the ball when the 6-foot-4, 248-pound "Junior'' Geathers went unblocked.
Said Smith with a laugh: "Milton got hit pretty hard. His shoe came off and everything. No one blocked (Geathers) and Milton got the ball and bam!''
Milton bounced back after taking the big hit, but Georgia lost another player to an injury Monday.
Center Russ Tanner, who had been in a tight battle for a starting job, left the locker room on crutches, his left knee in a brace, Monday morning after suffering a sprained medial collateral ligament.
Coach Mark Richt said Tanner could miss two to four weeks, meaning senior Ian Knight will be the starting center in the Aug. 31 season opener against Clemson. For now, freshman Randall Swoopes of Athens is the backup center.
No running back appreciates being knocked out of his shoes, but every player gains confidence in moving past the first hits of the year. For Milton and Smith, each returning from injuries, the annual rite of preseason practice was especially important.
Said Milton, returning from a shoulder injury that kept him out of spring practice: "Yeah, I'm back in the thick of things and being able to take the blows. Running backs don't want to get hit, but it's going to happen. I bounced right back up.''
Smith's ability to return from a groin injury is perhaps the biggest key to Georgia's season. Smith also was held out of contact in spring practice after he was slowed by the injury most of the second half of the 2001 season.
Smith already had gained confidence by proving he could accelerate and cut without aggravating the injury, but still he said it was important to prove to himself that he could take and give hits without a problem.
"My groin got so weak (last season) that it would just kill me every time I broke a tackle,'' Smith said. "I broke tackles today when people had my leg and it felt good. ... It builds confidence.''
Richt called the morning practice "really outstanding.''
"Even after looking at the tape of the morning practice, I don't think I saw one guy loaf on one play,'' Richt said, adding the afternoon practice under increased heat "was a little bit more of a survival day.''
Said Richt of the afternoon session of two-a-day drills: "They fought through it, but it was just not nearly as crisp.''
The practices in full pads are crucial but dangerous. An injury to a key player can turn a team strength - like Georgia's offensive line - into a huge question in a matter of seconds.
Thus far, Georgia's most serious injuries have come to the line. Senior offensive tackle George Foster was lost for 12 weeks with a broken wrist suffered in a car accident shortly before the start of practice. Tanner joined Foster on the injured list Monday.
Also, freshman offensive guard Josh Brock had to wear a green, non-contact jersey after he was diagnosed with a stress fracture in his lower back. Brock may be able to return for today's two workouts, including an afternoon scrimmage closed to the public, at Sanford Stadium.
NOTES: Tight end Ben Watson was named the team's top conditioned athlete, based on summer testing for strength, speed and agility. "I don't think anyone was close,'' Richt said.
Linebacker Tony Gilbert and fullback J.T. Wall shared the Leon Farmer Strength and Conditioning Award, given to the players whose dedication to the program results in a significant contribution to the team.
Players were grouped according to linemen, running backs, tight ends and linebackers, and receivers and defensive backs. Of the linemen, Jon Stinchcomb was the best conditioned player. Linebacker Boss Bailey topped his group, and receiver Reggie Brown headed his group.
Saturday is Fans Picture Day at 2 p.m. at the Classic Center in Athens. Two-a-day practices will continue through the week. Classes begin next Monday.
Charles Odum can be reached here: CEOdum@aol.com
Be Sure to check out theinsiders.com's new Total Access Pass. One price fits all. For only $7.95 per month, you will get ALL of the premium content from theinsiders.com and Dawgpost including the internet's most popular Dawg only message board The Porch, recruiting updates from theinsiders.com's team of experts and the Scout Database, which tracks high school, college, and professional players in both football and basketball.