Dawgs try to answer questions in opener

ATHENS – It has been nearly a month since Georgia opened fall camp, and while the preseason didn't lack for storylines, head coach Mark Richt still has plenty of questions left unanswered.

So when the Bulldogs open their season today against Georgia Southern, Richt is hoping to do more than just win his first game of the season. He's hoping by game's end to have a much better feel for his team.

"I'm really curious to see who the punt returner is going to be," Richt said. "I'm really curious to see how that (offensive) line plays together. I'm curious to see how (kicker) Blair Walsh will handle his responsibility. I'm curious to see the freshmen – the redshirt and true freshmen – to see how they react to their first opportunity."

That's not all. Due to a rash of injuries, the defensive line has hardly played together during the preseason. Richt said there is no clear leader in the battle to handle kickoff duties. At safety, there is virtually no depth beyond the two starters.

Despite all the questions, however, Georgia will take the field as the preseason No. 1 for the first time in program history. The expectations are high, but quarterback Matthew Stafford said the team is looking forward to no longer talking about what could be and start finding some real results on the field.

"We're excited to get this thing rolling, we're excited to hit somebody other than ourselves and get out there and play a different team," Stafford said. "We know it's a long road ahead and a lot of tough games, from the first one to the last one, and we've just got to go out there and work hard."

Georgia's success may ride heavily on the shoulders of a revamped offensive line. Starting left tackle Trinton Sturdivant tore multiple knee ligaments in camp and will miss the year. Now the Bulldogs will open with four first-time starters on the line, while center Chris Davis will make his first start at a new position.

"Last year, we didn't have many (experienced players), but those guys stayed together from the spring through the fall camp and almost through the entire season," Richt said. "We didn't have much change. We've been juggling more in this camp than we did all year last year put together."

That plays directly to Georgia Southern's strengths, too. The Eagles have two fearsome defensive ends in Larry Beard, an all-conference player last season, and South Carolina transfer Dakota Walker.

Georgia's current lineup of Kiante Tripp, Vince Vance, Chris Davis, Cordy Glenn and Josh Davis has been working together for about two weeks in camp, and Stafford said the group has looked sharp so far.

"For me, it's my job to trust them every time, and they've been doing a good job in practice," Stafford said. "I do trust them, and I think this time last year we weren't this good up front. We weren't protecting as well as we were now, and that's a good sign."

Georgia's questions hardly end with the offensive line, however.

On the other side of the ball, Georgia's defensive ends suffered a rash of nagging preseason injuries, with only Jarius Wynn avoiding a green jersey in camp.

Defensive coordinator Willie Martinez said the starters probably wouldn't be decided until today, but a heavy rotation would be used regardless.

"A lot of guys have been out, but they're slowly but surely coming back," Martinez said. "They're not ready to play a 70-play game, but we never ask our defensive line guys to do that. We're expecting it to be a high-tempo type of atmosphere. We're probably going to have to play a lot of guys."

Defensive linemen Kade Weston and Neland Ball will both miss the game with injuries.

Walsh failed to nail down the job handling kickoffs, but he will be the Bulldogs' top field-goal and extra-point kicker. The true freshman has a strong leg, but Richt said it's impossible to tell how good a kicker is until he does it in a real game.

"He hasn't made every single kick, but I think he's doing well," Richt said. "I think he's excited and confident in his abilities, and he should be. He's very talented, and he's had a good camp. It's just that the rubber's about to meet the road here."

With so many new faces in new places – Richt said more than 15 true and redshirt freshmen are expected to play – and a handful of jobs still up for grabs, the Bulldogs depth chart could look a bit different at game's end than it did at kickoff.

"There could be some adjusting on the fly in a hurry out there," Richt said. "There are some battles that have been so close that within the first quarter you may say, ‘You know what, this guy's struggling, I'm going with the other guy. I'm giving the other guy a chance to see what he can do.' "

Richt has reminded his team often of Appalachian State's victory over Michigan to start last season, when the Wolverines were among the top-ranked teams in the country. The only team to beat Appalachian State last year was Georgia Southern. So no one, Richt said, is taking today's game for granted.

But if the Bulldogs do win, a victory may be measured more in terms of how much Georgia learned about itself than in how easily it defeated the Eagles.

"It's going to take a while to get into any kind of groove or rhythm and really understand what we're capable of doing," Richt said. "The guys are probably just as curious as the coaches are to see what's going to happen here."

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