A Few Freshmen Get Their Chance

ATHENS – T.J. Stripling has been told to be ready. So the freshman from Decatur will suit up on Saturday morning, fully-padded, and assume that at some point that day his college career will officially begin.

Among true freshmen on the Georgia football team, Stripling will be a rarity.

The Bulldogs could play as few as four first-year freshmen in the season opener against Louisiana-Lafayette. And most of their initial action will come on special teams.

"I think we all came out there and gave it our best shot," Stripling said this week. "But I think it might just be all the depth we have on this team right now at different positions."

It could also be that this freshman class was never expected to have a major immediate impact.

Safety Alec Ogletree appears to have a bright future, and has the size (6-foot-3 and 215 pounds) and athletic ability to be an impact player. But he is only slated to be a backup at safety, while definitely playing on special teams.

His brother Zander, a fullback, also figures to get playing time, but mainly on special teams.

Derek Owens is in the mix for playing time at cornerback and special teams.

Those four, including Stripling, are the only four true freshmen that head coach Mark Richt said were definitely slated to play on Saturday. Another, Hutson Mason, is the No. 2 quarterback, but it still isn't clear if he will play only in an emergency, or if the coaches will get him some experience.

Contrast that to the impact some freshmen made last year:

- Washaun Ealey was the team's leading rusher.

- Branden Smith was one of the team's dynamic athletes, playing in all 13 games at cornerback, returning kicks, playing on offense (208 rushing yards and two touchdowns).

- Tight end Orson Charles started three games and played in all 13, leading tight ends with 23 catches and 374 yards and three touchdowns.

- Mike Gilliard played in 12 games at inside linebacker. Defensive end Abry Jones played in 12 games, recording a sack against LSU. Shawn Williams played in all 13 games at safety. Rantavious Wooten started three games, and finished with 10 catches for 197 yards. Tight end Arthur Lynch started once, and appeared in 11 games.

In 2008, there were four true freshmen who started at least 10 games: A.J. Green, Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Blair Walsh.

To be fair, one member of this year's signing class will start on Saturday: Jakar Hamilton at free safety. But Hamilton was a junior college transfer.

"I think in some given years you have more young guys play than in others," said defensive line coach Rodney Garner, who is also Georgia's recruiting coordinator. "It's gonna be the first year probably in awhile where I haven't played a freshman. Or I don't plan on playing at a freshman at this point. But obviously I'm one injury away from sitting there having to re-evaluate that."

The good news for Georgia is it has the ability not to force any freshmen into the lineup early. (With the possible exception of Mason.)

For instance, Michael Bennett has seen a lot of practice reps at receiver. But with at least six veterans ahead of him, the Bulldogs can probably redshirt Bennett if they want to.

Even at tailback, the suspension of Ealey apparently hasn't changed the status of Ken Malcome. The Bulldogs still have three players ahead of Malcome on the depth chart.

Of course, pointed out running backs coach Bryan McClendon, last year at this time he thought he might redshirt Ealey.

"To be quite honest with you, especially at certain positions, you would rather go with veteran guys that know what it takes," McClendon said. "But then again, the bottom line is we're gonna play the best players at the best position. … Last year, that was the case. Freshmen came in and earned playing time. This year you've got older guys that have been holding on to those positions. And that's just been how it works out."

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