ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia players are hunkering down for an extended camp stay this year as the Bulldogs open preseason practices Friday afternoon.
With classes at the university starting a week later than in the last several years, the Bulldogs will practice over a 16-day stretch before breaking before the start of classes on Aug. 18.
The Bulldogs are scheduled to practice 19 times before then — including twice a day workouts on Aug. 6, 8, 11 and 13.
That’s a lot of bonding time at the Georgia Center, where the players stay before school starts.
Junior college transfer cornerback Shattle Fenteng tweeted this week that “we get to live the NFL life for a couple weeks. No school just football.”
It’s the first preseason for the entirely new defensive staff, led by coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.
“I think these guys know what it looks like to win big, and they’ve put in a system of how we’re going to go about our business,” coach Mark Richt said. “The guys are responding well to that.”
SEC-record setting quarterback Aaron Murray and three offensive line starters are gone.
So are safeties Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews, dismissed this offseason, and cornerback Shaq Wiggins, who transferred out.
The work has been done not only on having the right attitude but getting bodies in shape to keep up with high tempo offenses.
Richt said offseason training has been tailored for faster recovery time.
“We’ve got a bunch of pounds that were lost,” Richt said. “Guys are more flexible and obviously still strong because we’re still lifting the weights, but we didn’t get so bulked up that we really couldn’t move.”
“Everybody’s in shape now,” senior inside linebacker Ramik Wilson said. “We’re just ready for camp.”
That includes the coaches.
“I think every football coach across the country when it gets to this point of year,” Pruitt said, “can’t wait to get started.”
Here are five storylines to watch between now and the Aug. 30 opener against Clemson:
We don’t know much more about who will be in the starting lineup in the first game than we did at the end of spring. Damian Swann and J.J. Green figure to be there. Corey Moore and Quincy Mauger are safeties with starting experience, but there are new faces that will get looks under Pruitt.
Reggie Wilkerson is now a safety after redshirting following a knee injury.
Freshman Dominick Sanders from Tucker, another safety, has impressed his new teammates.
He’s one of five additions to the secondary from the signing class along with Fenteng, cornerbacks Shaq Jones, Malkom Parrish and Rico Johnson.
Walk-on Aaron Davis ended the spring with the starting group at cornerback and could, at the least, earn a rotation spot.
“It’s going to be guys who play the ball good in the deep part of the field,” Pruitt said. “To me, that’s the most important thing when it comes to a defensive back: …Because obviously that’s where the big plays are created. We’ll see who plays with toughness, who can play man-to-man, who tackles well, who can sustain and do it over a period of time.To me, I think all the guys can do it. But who is going to do it over and over and over? That will be the difference.”
There isn’t any panic over Georgia losing offensive line starters Kenarious Gates, Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee.
“I feel really good about where we’re at up front,” offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. “I think we’ve got some maturity there. We’ve got some leadership in that group, and I think we’ve got some guys that we feel are a little bit more athletic than we’ve been in the past.”
Georgia just might be deeper with a group that will include senior center David Andrews, junior tackle John Theus, redshirt sophomore right guard Greg Pyke and senior tackle/guard Kolton Houston.
Sophomore guard Brandon Kublanow and senior tackle Mark Beard “had great summers,” Bobo said. Senior guard/tackle Watts Dantzler is pushing to be in the rotation.
Theus could start at left or right tackle and Houston at left guard or right tackle.
“Wherever coach puts me I’m going to try my hardest,” said Theus, who said he’s splitting his time in summer workouts about evenly between the left and right side.
“That’s going to be something that works out in camp,” Bobo said of the lineup. “Y’all hear it every year. It’s going to be the best five who we feel like gives us the best chance to move the ball effectively and score points so we’ll have to see.”
The move to name John Lilly and Mike Ekeler as co-special teams coordinators signaled the need to fix an area that was too often a liability last season.
The Bulldogs’ return game hasn’t been much of a threat recently and has had costly giveaways.
Freshman Isaiah McKenzie from Florida was brought in to provide a spark.
“Isaiah McKenzie is a guy we felt was electric on returns when we signed him,” Bobo said.
The punting job must be decided. Collin Barber is trying to regain his spot after walk-on Adam Erickson from Clarke Central replaced him last season.
“I’m just going to pray to God that I get my spot back and get it to how it was,” Barber said. “We’re just going to battle it out and the best one will play.”
Said Erickson: “I hope to punt as much as I can, as much as they ask me to. I’ll compete every week — I anticipate a competition every week with Collin because he’s a great punter.”
PLAYERS TO WATCH
There is plenty of talent in the backfield after Georgia endured injuries to its top players last season.
Keith Marshall is back from a torn ACL and freshmen Sony Michel and Nick Chubb join a mix that still includes Brendan Douglas behind star Todd Gurley.
“We’ve got 29 practices to figure out who is going to give us the best chance to provide us with some depth and help us win some games,” Bobo said. “All of those guys are going to be involved in special teams and I think being involved in special teams also gives guys confidence, too, that they can go out there and play if their number is called.”
The expected two-game suspension for Davin Bellamy for a DUI arrest means that five-star freshman Lorenzo Carter will have a chance to move into a backup job immediately.
His speed off the edge can give the Bulldogs another player to pressure the quarterback along with Leonard Floyd and Jordan Jenkins.
Hutson Mason is set for his season as Georgia’s starting quarterback, but the backup job remains to be decided.
Redshirt sophomore Faton Bauta and redshirt freshman Brice Ramsey will pick up where they left off in their competition.
“It’s going to play out in practice reps and the three scrimmages that we have are going to be very big for those guys,” Bobo said. “At the end of the day, who’s going to put us in the best position to be able to win a ballgame and execute what we ask him to do.”
After a season when Georgia was decimated at the skill positions on offense, going to battle with a full deck against Clemson would be ideal.
Wide receiver Malcolm Mitchell already is a question after undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his right knee Thursday after re-injuring the knee.
Having Gurley primed and ready to go would be ideal.
“He’s part of the team, and he’s got to go out there and approach every day and approach every day with the right mindset,” Bobo said. “But at the same time as coaches we’re going to be smart about things that we put him through. And then we’ve got to practice smart. We’ve got to be able to ‘thud’ the right way as a team and be able to practice full speed and not tackle the ground, which always helps. But I’m going to challenge him just like I did in the spring.”
Marshall, Mitchell and receiver Justin Scott-Wesley and tight end Jay Rome will be working their way back from injuries.
“Yeah, we’re very excited that they’re back,” Richt said before Mitchell’s latest setback. “I think we did a great job in our offseason. We tweaked it a little bit. We were doing a lot more flexibility. …I think the way we trained in the offseason is going to help us as well.”