Georgia Spring Football Preview

ATHENS, Ga. - Few coaches have the opportunity to work with an offensive line that boasts seven seniors. That was the blessing for Coach Mark Richt and his staff in 2002.

Georgia spring practice schedule First practice:
Today, 11:30 a.m.
Spring football coaches clinic: Thursday and Friday
Off for spring break: March 14-24 
G-Day spring intrasquad game: Saturday, April 5

Few coaches have the challenge of working with an offensive line that includes no seniors or juniors. That is the challenge for Richt and his staff in 2003.

The veteran line paved the way for Georgia's breakthrough 2002 Southeastern Conference championship season, but as the Bulldogs open spring practice today, replacing those seniors - including all five starters - is the top priority.

The new line will include only freshmen and sophomores, including only one - guard Josh Brock - who has started as many as three games.

"It will be the most inexperienced line I've ever been around as a coach, and it will be a tremendous  challenge for (assistant coach) Neil Callaway to get those guys ready to play,'' Richt said.

Only three starters return on offense from the 13-1 team that finished No. 3 in the nation. Though Terrence Edwards is the only starting receiver who is not returning, the position will be thin this spring.

Fred Gibson is playing on the Georgia basketball team, Reggie Brown is spending time on the track team, and Michael Johnson suffered a shoulder injury in the offseason mat drills and will miss spring practice. Johnson is expected to be ready for preseason drills in August.

The defense has good returning depth in the secondary and on the defensive line - especially at end - but all three starting linebackers must be replaced.

Overall, 13 of 25 starters are gone. Richt must replace his leading rusher (Musa Smith), leading receiver (Edwards) and  top two tacklers (linebackers Boss Bailey and Tony Gilbert).

The talent Georgia loses will be obvious in the NFL draft. For the first time, Georgia could have three first-round picks and as many as five players   selected in the first two rounds. Overall, as many as 11  players from the 2002 team could be drafted or at least signed by NFL teams as undrafted free agents.

The returning talent also is significant, headed by quarterback David Greene, defensive end David Pollack, receivers Fred Gibson and Damien Gary, cornerbacks Bruce Thornton and Decory Bryant,  safety Sean Jones and kicker Billy Bennett.

The deepest areas are defensive end and the secondary. Another obvious strength is quarterback. Pollack returns as the reigning SEC Player of the Year. Ends Will Thompson, Shedrick Wynn and Robert Geathers also return after combining for  12.5 sacks last year.

A name to watch at defensive end this spring is Marquis Elmore, a redshirt freshman who is listed at 6-foot-4 and 250 pounds and yet shows enough athleticism that coaches were tempted to play him at middle linebacker.

Meanwhile, the secondary is loaded with experienced players.  Thornton, Bryant and rover Kentrell Curry will be seniors. Jones is an all-star candidate at free safety as a junior.

There should be good depth at cornerback, where DeMario Minter and Tim Jennings earned immediate playing time as true freshmen last year.

Finally, Greene returns at quarterback after earning first-team All-SEC honors as a sophomore while sharing time with D.J. Shockley.

But those returning starters will not be the focus of spring drills. Richt says the 15 practices will be designed "to find out what some of the young guys can do.''

Though sophomore Tony Milton enters spring drills as the player to beat at tailback, following the exit of Smith, this is an area where Richt will be looking at other young players. This could be a key spring for redshirt freshman Michael Cooper, who was one of the top names in Richt's 2002 signing class.

"I like how Cooper has been working,'' Richt said, referring to the offseason mat drills. "He's a hard worker. He's got a great attitude. He just wasn't  ready (last season). We were hoping he would be more ready to go, but he wasn't.''

Richt said Cooper agreed a redshirt year was the best plan for 2002. "He was for that and now he's ready to compete for the job and he will compete at tailback,'' Richt said.

Another 2002 signee who was redshirted last year, safety Olaolu Sanni-Osomo, will have a chance to make an impact this spring even though he is still recovering from knee surgery and may not be cleared for contact. There had been some thought Sanni-Osomo would play linebacker, but for now at least he will compete for time at safety.

"Just the little bit we saw of Olaolu with the freshmen, we were really excited about him,'' Richt said. "We saw how intelligent he was, how quickly he picked things up, how explosive he was, how he seemed to have a mental toughness when we did a few drills when they were getting a little tired. We're expecting big things from him.''

Another player who can play safety or linebacker, sophomore Thomas Davis, will open spring with the first-team defense at the outside linebacker spot that Bailey played last seas

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