Bulldogs plan to remain among elite

ATHENS, Ga. -- As Mark Richt turns the page from one season to the next, Georgia’s coach insists that his expectations will not change this fall.

The Bulldogs lose 12 key defensive players from a team that finished fifth in the final Associated Press poll and fourth in the USA Today Coaches Poll -- the third-best finish for a Richt-coached Georgia team in both polls -- but Richt said he still expects his team to rank among the national elite.

“We plan on being that. We hope to be that. We’ve got to earn that,” Richt said Thursday afternoon on his season-wrapup teleconference.

And while there is a long way to go between now and the 2013 season opener at Clemson on Aug. 31, the national perception seems to be that the Bulldogs will remain in the mix. ESPN’s Mark Schlabach listed Georgia sixth on his “Way-Too-Early Top 25” this week just after the 2012 season officially ended.

Entering his 13th season as Georgia’s coach, Richt compared the Bulldogs’ defensive situation with the depth-chart questions that existed on offense entering last season.

Georgia trotted out a pair of true freshmen at tailback in Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall after Isaiah Crowell’s arrest led to his dismissal from the team, and the freshmen were immensely successful. In addition, a rebuilt offensive line that lost three starters to the NFL draft still managed to hold up well in its first season together.

“No one really knew for sure what was going to happen this past season,” Richt said. “There were some big question marks if you remember a year ago -- mostly offensively and offensive line probably more so than any position, and running back, as well. Those are the top two things.

“That’s all I answered questions on was the O-line, ‘Can the O-line get it done and what’s going to happen at running back?’ and by the end of the year they came through. So more questions will be asked of the defensive side of the ball this year. So those guys have got to do their thing and come through.”

The defensive questions are completely reasonable after losing starters at every level of the defense. John Jenkins, Kwame Geathers, Cornelius Washington and Abry Jones are all gone off the front line. Shawn Williams, Bacarri Rambo, Sanders Commings and Branden Smith were all key seniors in the secondary. Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard played valuable downs at inside linebacker.

And the top two playmakers on Georgia’s defense, linebackers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogletree -- both of whom rank among ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper’s top six prospects for the upcoming NFL draft -- decided to turn pro after standout junior seasons.

That’s a lot to replace, but Richt said he trusts the returning players to make the most of their newfound opportunities.

“We’d better be ready. We don’t really have a choice, obviously,” Richt said. “But I’ve got a lot of faith in these guys, but they’ve got to work. They’ve got to prepare right now. They can’t just sit here and wait until camp starts or even summer, they’ve got to start now. I talked to those guys. Their goal must be greater than just getting to play or getting to start of even being possibly being All-SEC for that matter. They need to be trying to prepare to be the very best in America at what they do.”

If Georgia is going to remain among the nation’s top programs, that’s the approach the defensive players must take -- just like the offensive linemen whom teammates credited for not missing a single summer workout last year in an effort to answer questions about their readiness to contribute.

“I don’t want their goals to be, ‘Well, I’m next in line and I’m going to get to play and I’m going to get to start,’ and all that kind of thing. You’ve got to think beyond that,” Richt said. “You’ve got to think, ‘Am I going to be good enough to help this team win a championship?’ That’s what I want them to be working on.”