Big Changes Await Bulldogs

ATHENS - Spring practice officially gets underway in Athens today, although the first practice will also be the last until March 16.

Still, in the next six weeks, Georgia's coaches have plenty they want to accomplish during what will no doubt be one of the most intriguing springs of the Mark Richt era. With an open battle at quarterback, new coaches on defense and a tumultuous 8-5 season in their rearview mirror, the Bulldogs will be busy, and every practice will be important.

With that, here are five major storylines to follow before Georgia wraps up its spring work at G-Day on April 10.

The quarterback battle. The coaching staff insists it's a wide-open competition to replace departed senior Joe Cox, while most fans and pundits seem to think redshirt freshman Aaron Murray has the clear upper hand over fellow redshirt freshman Zach Mettenberger and rising junior Logan Gray. Regardless, the Bulldogs will go to battle with a first-year starter at QB for the second year in a row, and with 10 other offensive starters returning from last year's unit, the pressure will be on whoever wins the job to produce immediately.

"The way we're viewing it going into the spring is it's wide open," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "There is not a clear-cut No. 1 going into the spring. Logan Gray will take the first reps with the No. 1 offense, but we're planning on rotating all three, and giving all three equal amount of looks with the first group."

Moving to the 3-4. With three new coaches on the defensive side of the ball, change was inevitable. But new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham also brings a new scheme – the 3-4 set, which employs three defensive linemen and four linebackers rather than the other way around. That has meant a number of position changes for players, with ends moving to outside linebacker and tackles moving to end, plus plenty of new responsibilities for each player to learn.

Several of the Bulldogs' veterans think the transition shouldn't be too drastic though, and linebacker Marcus Dowtin promises a quick adjustment.

"You'll see, it's going to be quick," Dowtin said. "The defense is not that hard. We're getting our plays in a section at a time, and we're going over it in detail. Guys are working together to relate it back to some of the terms and coverages we used to run. Any similarity we find or that Coach Grantham identifies, we try to spread it around to all the other guys and make sure everybody understands."

Stay healthy. A year ago, Georgia entered spring practice battered and bruised following a season that included nearly two-dozen season-ending injuries. This spring, things are looking a bit better, with only a handful of reserves scheduled to miss action and no recent surgeries for trainers to keep their eyes on. Still, Richt said he hasn't yet determined just how cautious he'll be when it comes to contact during the spring.

"We want to stay healthy and that will be addressed as far as how we get after each other in the spring," Richt said. "(We're) trying to find the right mix because you want to be great at tackling, great at cut blocking, but you also want to stay as healthy as you possibly can."

Changes in the secondary. Three-fourths of Georgia's defensive backfield will be new in 2010, but that doesn't necessarily mean the Bulldogs will take a big step back. Georgia finished 11th in the SEC in pass-efficiency defense last year (and 73rd nationally), so there's room for improvement. Still, those improvement will have to come from a few unproven players. Rising sophomore Branden Smith got some action as a reserve last year and is the favorite to step in for Prince Miller at corner. Junior college transfer Jakar Hamilton has already created some buzz at safety, and could serve as a replacement for the departed Reshad Jones. Bacarri Rambo looks like the front runner to step in for Bryan Evans at the other safety position, but if Quintin Banks can stay healthy this spring, he could push for some reps, too.

"I believe that we're going to get more interceptions this year," Smith said. "Last year, we didn't get that many picks, and I believe it was the scheme we were in. The scheme we're in now, it seems like something everybody's looking forward to."

Taking the next step. Georgia got plenty of production from freshmen and redshirt freshmen on both sides of the ball, but bigger things will be expected across the board in 2010. Washaun Ealey led the Bulldogs in rushing with 717 yards despite sitting out the first four games of the year. He'll get a full year to toil in the backfield this time. Orson Charles showed immense promise at tight end, finishing third on the team in receptions and yards, but he needs to show he can handle a bit more of the burden in the blocking game. Abry Jones saw some snaps at defensive tackle a year ago, but he'll likely be one of Georgia's starting ends in the new 3-4 scheme, and players like Smith and Rambo will almost certainly see a lot more playing time in the secondary in 2010.

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