ATHENS, Ga. - All around the Georgia football program, everything old is new again.
The artificial turf practice field has been resurfaced. There is a new weight room at the Butts-Mehre Building, which finally is modern enough to compare to others around the Southeastern Conference. The training room, locker rooms and players' lounge have been remodeled. And a new digital video system has been purchased.
That's a few million dollars worth of improvements, but how much do they really matter?
"We've got $3 million worth of new facilities there," said Georgia head coach Jim Donnan. "But really, that doesn't win any games for you. It'll hopefully create a good morale base for the players."
Yes, the players are the true focal point for Donnan as he begins his second year with the Bulldogs, no doubt hoping he can erase memories of last year's 5-6 season like he did at Marshall, where he went from 6-5 in his first year to 11-4 in his second.
In his second season with the Thundering Herd, Donnan also led his team to the NCAA championship game. That goal may be a bit of a stretch for this year's Bulldogs, but with plenty of arriving and returning talent, Georgia's prospects look good heading into the first week of practice.
Georgia's freshmen report Tuesday, followed by the veterans on Thursday, with all ready to begin frenzied preparations for their Aug. 30 season opener against Arkansas State.
As fall practice begins, there is an air of stability surrounding the Bulldog program - finally. After the ever-present uncertainty following a coaching change which hovered over the 1996 preseason, and the endless speculation over the severity of Georgia's penalties, things are relatively calm at the Butts-Mehre Building.
The players are healthy and ready to go, so there won't be any debate over how well Mike Bobo and Robert Edwards will bounce back from injuries, as was the case a year ago. Both already have been penciled into the starting lineup, despite some talented underclassmen pushing them in the spring.
Despite his league-leading 16 interceptions a year ago, "Mike Bobo is the starting quarterback," Donnan said.
The senior dropped about 20 pounds between the end of the '96 season and the start of spring practice to improve his mobility.
He will be pushed harder this year by redshirt freshman Mike Usry, the heir apparent to the job. Donnan has indicated that, barring injury, Bobo is a lock to start the opener.
Edwards is ready to go as well, but has plenty of company in the backfield. With a healthy Edwards (800 yards, nine touchdowns in 1996) and sophomore Patrick Pass (354 yards, two TDs) available, Georgia will go to a two-back set regularly in '97.
"We feel like they're two quality backs," Donnan said. "We're going to play both of them in the same backfield more than about any other set. That's an explosive tandem."
Of course, the key to Georgia's success in the end may be making sure Hines Ward gets the ball as much as possible. The senior all-purpose threat will lead the receiving corps, but also will move into full-time punt return duties and touch the ball on any number of occasions. Senior Corey Allen, junior Tony Small and redshirt freshmen Thaddeus Parker and Michael Greer will get plenty of looks in the preseason. Donnan also will add cornerback Champ Bailey to the mix on occasion.
The tight ends also will be featured more this fall, and incumbent starter Larry Brown will lead Marshall transfer Jermaine Wiggins and senior Michael Taylor in competition at that spot.
On the offensive line, Donnan will replace All-SEC left tackle Adam Meadows with a sure All-SEC bet for this year, junior Matt Stinchcomb, who's moving over from the right side. Center Brad Stafford returns, and the right tackle and two guard spots will be filled by some combination of Steve Herndon, Kenley Ingram, Antonio Fleming, Reggie Stargill, Jonas Jennings and converted defensive lineman Chris Terry.
The most obvious need to be addressed on defense before the opener is on the line, where the departure of standouts Jermaine Smith and Jason Ferguson leaves two big holes. But seniors Travis Stroud and Derrick Byrd will lead a number of younger players who must solidify the defensive front. Look for junior college transfers Emarlos Leroy and Antonio Cochran to challenge for playing time immediately.
The linebacking corps is strong, at least among the starters, with seniors Greg Bright and Brandon Tolbert in the middle, sophomore Orantes Grant on the weak side and junior college transfer Rich Robich focusing on the rush.
Equally strong and deep will be the secondary, led by brothers Champ and Ronald Bailey at left and right corner, respectively. Veteran safeties Trey Sipe and Kirby Smart will call the shots in the middle. All will be backed by a slew of promising underclassmen.
Placekicker Hap Hines, who hit 7-of-9 field goal attempts as a true freshman, returns, along with senior punter Dax Langley and veteran long snapper Matt Rabon, to anchor the kicking game.
There is, of course, room for adjustment on the depth chart in the preseason, but the primary focus will be drilling the offensive and defensive schemes, all the better to prevent the miscues and inconsistencies that plagued last year's team.
It's about time for the Bulldogs to strap the pads on again, and they're thinking happy thoughts as the specter of two-a-days looms.
Said Ward, "I hope it's a breakout year. The University of Georgia has been mediocre for the past three years. We're looking for big things this year. I think we have a good chance this year, I expect a lot of us this year."
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