ATHENS, Ga. - While it may not seem logical for a team ranked eighth in the nation to have apparent plans to play 10 or more freshmen, the first-year players headed for their debuts at Georgia say it is all part of a winning plan.
"When we all signed, we knew it was going to be a good class,'' said defensive tackle Kedric Golston, who is expected to be the only first-year player to start in Saturday night's season opener against Clemson.
Added Golston: "Everybody came in with the aspirations of wanting to play. We knew through it all that this class could be great if we just keep on working hard and listened to what our coaches tell us.''
By one count, as many as eight true freshmen could play against Clemson and 11 or more could play this season.
Meanwhile, 12 redshirt freshmen - a list topped by quarterback D.J. Shockley and tailback Tony Milton - are listed on the depth chart. So as many as 20 Georgia players could receive their first playing time in the nationally televised game.
By comparison, four true freshmen - David Pollack, Mike Gilliam, Fred Gibson and Robert Geathers - played last year. Six true freshmen played in 2000 and 10 played in 1999.
The 2001 recruiting class was the first under Coach Mark Richt, but Richt had only about six weeks after he was hired to pull that class together. This 2002 signing class is the first that Richt has had a full year to assemble, and it looks to be one of Georgia's best in recent memory. Allen Wallace of SuperPrep rated the recruiting class as the 14th-best in the nation, and The Sporting News ranked it second in the Southeastern Conference, behind Tennessee. On signing day, Rivals.com rated Georgia's class as the third-best in the nation, following Texas and Tennessee.
As Richt recruited for need, the class was built on linemen, linebackers and defensive backs. The need was obvious, because freshmen will have to play immediately on both sides of the line. Georgia is expected to start five senior offensive linemen against Clemson. After that group the only junior is backup guard Chris Hewitt and there are no sophomores.
In order to have experienced players in 2003, freshmen have to play this year - ready or not.
"We've got to force the issue,'' Richt said. "We've got to play the younger linemen by design. Hopefully we will not throw them all in there at the same time. That would not be wise.''
Offensive coordinator and line coach Neil Callaway plans to use freshman guards Josh Brock and Bartley Miller and tackle Max Jean-Gilles Saturday night. Tackle Daniel Inman and center Randall Swoopes still could figure into the playing rotation later in the season.
Quarterback David Greene says he is confident the freshmen will provide adequate blocking. The massive Jean-Gilles, now 6-foot-4 and about 360 pounds, should be especially difficult to budge as a pass blocker.
"I feel confident because they've done a great job in practice so far,'' Greene said. "I know they don't have a lot of experience yet, but they work hard and have a great work ethic that is going to help them out.''
Two freshmen - Golston and Darrius Swain - are listed on the two-deep depth chart on the defensive line.
At least two first-year players - DeMario Minter and Tim Jennings - are expected to play backup roles at cornerback.
Other first-year players expected to play against Clemson include running back Tyson Browning, linebacker Tony Taylor and possibly one of three receivers.
Defensive end Marcus Jackson and linebacker Marquis Elmore may play when they recover from injuries.
"That's the type of guys that Coach Richt is going to recruit, guys that can contribute immediately,'' said senior receiver Terrence Edwards. "We've got a lot of guys that are ready to play, not just being thrown in.''
Some of the freshmen have been encouraged by veteran teammates to exude a confident attitude not usually seen in first-year players coming out of two-a-day drills. Minter, for one, is quite willing to strike the pose.
"I like playing Clemson the first game,'' said Minter, expected to play in nickel formations and as a backup to starting cornerbacks Bruce Thornton and Decory Bryant.
"They pass the ball and I'm a big-time player and this is a big-time game. I'm going to try to make big-time plays.''
Added Minter: "Just like Bruce Thornton says, you've got to have a swagger. If you don't have that swagger, that means that wide receivers and offenses are going to take advantage of you. ... With the defensive corps we've got, we can't be stopped.''
For Richt and his staff, having freshmen move into the depth chart is a mixed blessing. The talent of such players as Golston, Swain, Jean-Gilles, Minter and Jennings is obvious, but no coach likes to have to depend on more than a handful of freshmen.
A good sign for Georgia is that the leaders of this freshman class have survived two-a-days and believe they deserve playing time.
"I just think the coaches did a great job of going out and recruiting players who were mature enough to step in and play right away,'' Golston said.
"The only difference between high school and college is the maturity of the person and how fast they can learn the system. I think the coaches just went out and recruited good players they knew could handle the college lifestyle.''