ATHENS, Ga. - From the position coach to the players sitting atop the depth chart, all the names are new at running back as Georgia prepares to open spring practice Saturday.
Gone are starting tailback Musa Smith, starting fullback J.T. Wall and backup fullback Braxton Snyder. Milton and Jeremy Thomas, who each made one start last season, will be the most experienced candidates at tailback and fullback, respectively.
Despite the lack of experience, and despite the expectation that incoming freshmen Kregg Lumpkin and Danny Ware could make a quick move up the depth chart in two-a-day drills in August, new running backs coach Ken Rucker does not plan to wait for the summer to find his starters.
"I believe when we come out of spring we'll have a guy we can say 'This is our guy,' '' Rucker said.
The loss of Smith, who rushed for 1,324 yards and eight touchdowns in the most productive season for a Georgia running back in 10 years, is significant. The concerns about the 2003 running game are magnified by the task of replacing the entire starting offensive line.
Even so, there is no sense of panic at running back. Instead, there should be good competition as Rucker and Coach Mark Richt say they are optimistic such players as Michael Cooper, Tyson Browning, Ronnie Powell and Chris Hickman will push Milton and Thomas for the starting jobs.
"It will be a competitive situation,'' said Rucker, the former Texas A&M running backs coach who was hired in December but did not move into his new job until after the Sugar Bowl.
"We've got a number of new guys that are eager to step up and I believe compete for those two positions. We are anxious to see what happens.''
The 51-year-old Rucker worked two stints at Texas A&M, packaged around three seasons as the linebackers coach and special teams coordinator at North Carolina. He previously coached at Baylor (1992-94), Arkansas (1990-92) and the Air Force Academy (1984-89), and at each of those stops his primary responsibility was running backs.
Said Rucker: "Having coached the position for such a long time, I know somebody will step up. ... Our kids' attitudes are real good. We'll find somebody.''
Milton (5-11, 200) rushed for 314 yards on 82 carries. He rushed for 78 yards on 18 carries in a fill-in start at Kentucky. More suited for duty as an every-down back than the 160-pound Browning, Milton has the confidence of Richt and will be difficult to beat out if he has a solid spring practice.
"I know Tony Milton is game-ready,'' Richt said. "I know he can play. Tyson has the most reps of anybody else, but I'm not 100-percent comfortable with Tyson Browning playing a lot of minutes as a tailback, so he needs to prove it.''
Richt said Powell, who was last spring's leading rusher, "might be one of the best runners we've got'' but must improve his pass-blocking - one of Milton's strengths.
Gilliam, who played as a true freshman in 2001, was redshirted last season and will be a third-year sophomore in 2003.
"We tried to rush him in a couple years ago when we had some (injury) problems at the position, hoping he could give us a spark,'' Richt said. "It didn't quite work out that way, so this past season we felt it was in his best interest to get bigger and stronger and more physically prepared to play.''
Albert Hollis, making slow but consistent progress from a severe knee injury in 2000, will participate in some drills but has not been cleared for full contact. It is possible he could receive that clearance for two-a-day drills.
Cooper, one of Georgia's most publicized signees in 2002, could be poised to be a surprise this spring. He fell behind as a true freshman and was redshirted last year, but he picked up confidence late in the year and stepped up with a strong bowl practice.
Rucker says Cooper has continued that momentum by working well in mat drills this winter.
There had been some speculation that Cooper, a physical runner listed at 222 pounds, could move to fullback. Richt says Cooper is not moving from tailback and, like Gilliam, "will have a good opportunity'' to emerge this spring. Still, Milton will take the practice field Saturday morning as the first-string tailback.
"I'd be surprised if anybody beats (Milton) out by the end of spring, but they might be able to move ahead of him as the number one guy,'' Richt said.
"To me, Milton is ready to play. He can improve, but I know he can play. Of those other four, one or two need to prove they can make an impact and maybe by the end of spring someone will rise up. I don't want it to be a pack. I want somebody to separate and prove he is ready to go.''