Freshmen playing early and often for Dawgs

ATHENS – If a team is likely to play a number of true freshmen, there's usually a good chance expectations for that team aren't particularly high. This year's Georgia Bulldogs, however, are the exception.

With just seven seniors projected as starters, the Bulldogs already knew experience wasn't a strong suit. But as preseason injuries mounted and several off-field incidents left key players suspended for early games, head coach Mark Richt has spent more time eying an impressive crop of true freshmen to provide depth, star on special teams and even take over important starting jobs. In any case, Richt said, there won't be many redshirts handed out this year.

With little more than a week to go before the season kicks off, this year's Bulldogs may be more reliant on true freshmen than most preseason No. 1 teams. But then again, linebacker Charles White said, this isn't exactly your typical freshman class.

"It's just exciting," White said. "That group of young guys came in ready to go. They're all great ballplayers, and they're just a great addition to the team." Here's a look at who might see the most action as the Bulldogs make a run at a national title:

* The running backs: There isn't much question about who will see the most carries out of the backfield this season, as Heisman candidate Knowshon Moreno will be the centerpiece of Georgia's offense. What has been surprising, however, is who might serve as his primary backup.

Entering camp, it was assumed redshirt freshman Caleb King – perhaps more highly touted than even Moreno when he arrived in Athens – would be the clear No. 2 on the depth chart. As it turned out, King's grasp on the job was a loose one at best, and a recent injury has opened the door for 17-year-old Richard Samuel to grab the job.

Samuel has impressed in practice and shown tremendous ability both running the ball and catching it out of the backfield. Running backs coach Tony Ball said Samuel is also a strong possibility to return kicks, and fullback Shaun Chapas raved about Samuel's quick progress since joining the team as an early enrollee in January.

"Sometimes you'll see him do something on film, and you'll forget how young he is," Chapas said. "He's awesome."

In addition to Samuel, Dontavius Jackson and Carlton Thomas have both shown flashes of potential in camp, with Thomas a legitimate candidate to return punts for the Bulldogs this season. Neither is guaranteed to avoid a redshirt, but Richt said there was a good chance both could see playing time.

As for compliments, perhaps none are more meaningful than from Moreno himself.

"They're running the ball hard, which is pretty impressive for freshmen," Moreno said. "They're still working on protection, but so am I, and so is the whole backfield."

* The wide receivers: Perhaps no freshman entered camp this season with more hype than A.J. Green. The 6-foot-4, 190-pound Green has been compared to Randy Moss by Richt and has had his teammates abuzz with his natural ability. Despite being limited by a hip flexor injury during the first two weeks of camp, Green has already supplanted more experienced wideouts to grab the No. 2 spot on the depth chart at flanker, and he said he's being counted on as a top option in goal-line situations.

"He doesn't know everything yet," wide receivers coach Tony Eason said, "but there's a lot of potential there."

Richt said Green is sure to get playing time this season, but he expects fellow freshman Tavarres King to see the field, too. King isn't quite as big as Green, but his speed and versatility make him a strong target for quarterback Matthew Stafford.

"I think they're both pretty close to game ready," Stafford said. "They definitely have work to do, and they know it. But they're both really good athletes and have a shot to help us out."

* Cordy Glenn and Ben Jones: When camp opened, it was Jones who looked like a safe bet to earn significant playing time. Richt discussed moving center Chris Davis back to guard, where he played last season, to make room for Jones in the starting lineup. That plan seems to be on hold for now, however, as Glenn has emerged as the probable starter at right guard.

"He's big, he's strong, and he knows what he's doing pretty well for a true freshman," Stafford said of Glenn. "I'm excited. I think he's going to be a good player."

That doesn't mean Jones is off the coaches' radar. The 6-3 center has shown positive signs in camp, Richt said, but thus far has been a victim of Georgia's impressive depth on the offensive line.

"I'm not talking about starting five, necessarily," Richt said, "but let's get (Jones) in there, let him play and maybe bump Chris (Davis) out a little bit as we go. But I think Ben has proved that he's ready to play."

* Marcus Dowtin and A.J. Harmon: Two of the biggest mysteries among the freshman class have been Dowtin and Harmon. Dowtin was injured in a bar fight before camp started, which worried some fans. The hard-hitting linebacker from Virginia has flashed the physical potential in camp, however, but Richt said he still needs to catch up on the mental aspects of the game.

"Dowtin has got a lot of great tools, but his knowledge is holding him back right now," Richt said. "But I think he'll play this year, or we'd sure like for him to play."

Harmon has the potential to be a beast on the defensive line. At 6-5, 330 pounds, his enormous frame had some fans wondering if he might not end up on the other side of the line of scrimmage at some point. For now, however, defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said the team is taking a wait-and-see approach as Harmon continues to develop.

* The defensive backs: When safety Quintin Banks went down with a knee injury early in camp, the spotlight was quickly shown on a group of freshman defensive backs Martinez said would need to step up to provide early depth.

Brandon Boykin and Sanders Commings have both progressed well, Martinez said, although both are seeing significant practice time at nickel back. Still, both figure to earn playing time in a depleted secondary, particularly Boykin.

"Some guys can carry it over from the meeting room to the field, some guys take a little bit longer," Martinez said. "Brandon is one of those guys who takes it out onto the field."

Makiri Pugh has also battled injuries this preseason, but fellow safeties Baccari Rambo and Nick Williams have managed to overcome some of the typical freshman follies, giving Martinez hope for the depth at safety down the road.

"I've got sites on guys who maybe are not ready now, but by the fourth or fifth ballgame, they will be," Martinez said. "And I think all of those guys fall under that. Maybe one or two might play earlier, maybe special teams."

* The kicker: Following the loss of Brandon Coutu, one of the most prolific kickers in Georgia history, Blair Walsh has some big shoes to fill on special teams. The freshman is the only scholarship kicker Georgia has, and his impressively strong leg has fans clamoring for more.

Richt has been impressed enough to call Walsh the prohibitive favorite for field-goal and extra-point duties this season less than two weeks into camp, but Walsh isn't resting on his laurels.

"It's always nice to have the coaches watching you, but I try to keep in mind what my role is on this team. I am a freshman, and I need to perform well. I really need to prove myself. Nothing's going to be handed, that's for sure."


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