The big reason why many publications are saying Georgia's football team is capable of great things in 2002 is because of the Bulldogs' 22 starters.
It isn't a stretch to say they might be the best in the Southeastern Conference.
Beyond that, however, there are plenty of question marks. That's why coach Mark Richt's biggest concern is depth as he prepares for his second season in Athens, Ga.
Richt said last week that his team can least afford injuries at linebacker and offensive line.
"Look at the linebackers - if you get a Tony Gilbert or Boss Bailey hurt, you've really gone to guys with very little experience at the position backing them up," Richt said.
With Gilbert (senior), Bailey (senior) and Chris Clemons (junior) returning, the Bulldogs have one of the more seasoned groups of linebackers in the SEC.
But there's not much experience behind them. Former Laney High standout Arnold Harrison, a redshirt sophomore, has seen limited duty, as have redshirt freshman Odell Thurman and redshirt sophomore Derrick Holloway.
Four starters return on the offensive line, which boasts three-year starters Jon Stinchcomb and Kevin Breedlove. Stinchcomb is an All-America candidate, and fellow seniors George Foster, Alex Jackson and Ian Knight round out an imposing offensive front.
Senior Kareem Marshall will get plenty of playing time, but there's not much experience behind him.
"If you get a couple of spots hurt on the offensive line, then you're going from a senior to a freshman," said Richt, whose team opens the season Aug. 31 at home against Clemson. "That could be critical."
PROVING GROUND: Tommy Bowden says he's as committed to quarterback Willie Simmons as he can be. The fourth-year Clemson coach said Simmons, a junior who takes over for Woody Dantzler, will start against Georgia "unless he breaks his leg."
Still, Bowden will have reservations regarding Simmons' ability until Simmons proves himself during a game.
"What game is he going to have the drive?" Bowden said last week. "You're down two, a minute to go, no timeouts, 70 yards, got to get a score, got to get a field goal. Until he does that ... Common sense will tell you that, until he does that, there's always going to be question marks."
Bowden said Simmons' previous experience doesn't eliminate those concerns. In 2000, having entered the game after Dantzler suffered an injury, Simmons engineered a 38-24 win at North Carolina after the Tigers faced a 17-0 deficit.
"We were down 17-0," Bowden said. "All he did was chuck it to Rod Gardner."
Simmons also played well that year against Georgia Tech, throwing an 18-yard touchdown strike to Gardner that gave Clemson the lead before the Yellow Jackets won on a touchdown with seven seconds left.
Bowden said that performance was a wash because the Tigers lost the game.
KUDOS FOR KITCHINGS: South Carolina basketball coach Dave Odom said he's impressed by Tony Kitchings' off-season work ethic.
Kitchings, a senior center who played at South Aiken High, has had problems with his weight since he arrived in Columbia.
"He's worked really hard to stay in shape," Odom said of Kitchings, whose late-season surge helped the Gamecocks to the championship game of the National Invitation Tournament. "He's also been working hard academically. He's got his mind on graduating; he wants to put himself in position for that."
There's one other thing on Kitchings' mind: He's scheduled to be married to Lindsay Lowery on Aug. 3.
"It's a big summer for Tony, and I think he's excited about his senior year," Odom said.
SEATTLE BOUND: North Augusta's T.J. Watkins will be back in Seattle this week for training camp.
Watkins, a former offensive lineman at Clemson, spent six weeks there in rookie camp after joining the Seahawks as a free agent.
Rookies report Wednesday, and camp begins Friday.
"I had good off-season," Watkins said. "I think I got stronger and got in pretty good shape. I'll feel a lot more comfortable than I did first time. I've been talking to lot veterans, and that helps to learn the ropes and get into the swing of things."
Reach Larry Williams at (706) 823-3645.
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