UGA spring preview: 5 positions to watch

ATHENS, Ga. -- Coaches always emphasize the importance of competition during spring practice, and there will certainly be more than enough at Georgia once the Bulldogs start spring drills on March 2.

The competition on the defensive side of the ball will be the story of the spring, as coordinator Todd Grantham and company work to find replacements for the 12 departed regulars who figured heavily into the Bulldogs’ defensive plans last fall.

Here are five positions that bear close watching this spring:

Noseguard: Perhaps the most notable position battle this spring will be at the nose, where John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers played nearly every significant down over the last two seasons. Since the noseguard is one of the most important spots in Grantham’s 3-4 base defense, the Bulldogs have to settle on at least one or two reliable candidates to take over in the middle of the defensive line. Michael Thornton is the lone veteran at the position, while Jonathan Taylor is coming off a redshirt season and could figure heavily into Georgia’s 2013 plans. Also, two early enrollees -- Chris Mayes and John Atkins -- will be key figures in this spring’s competition.

Safety: Although Connor Norman got a taste of regular playing time early last season while three-year starting free safety Bacarri Rambo was suspended, it would be a minor upset if he becomes a regular starter this fall. But somebody has to take over now that Rambo and Shawn Williams are out of the picture. Norman is one candidate, but it will be interesting to see what Josh Harvey-Clemons, Corey Moore and early enrollees Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger can accomplish this fall. Paris Bostick and juco transfers Shaq Fluker and Kennar Johnson will enter the mix this summer, but Harvey-Clemons, Moore, Matthews and Mauger get a jump on the competition in practices over the next month.

Cornerback: Unlike nose guard and safety, the Bulldogs have at least one established player returning at cornerback: rising junior Damian Swann, who started every game and led the team with four interceptions last season. But after Swann, multiple players must prove themselves as replacements for departed regulars Sanders Commings and Branden Smith. Sheldon Dawson, Devin Bowman, Reggie Wilkerson and Blake Sailors are all part of the competition this spring, while signees Brendan Langley and Shaq Wiggins figure to throw their hats into the ring this summer.

Inside linebacker: Amarlo Herrera has been a key contributor over the last two seasons and will figure heavily into the Bulldogs’ plans as a junior this fall. But without Alec Ogletree, Christian Robinson and Michael Gilliard, Herrera is Georgia’s only inside linebacker with any considerable experience. Rising junior Ramik Wilson played mostly in short-yardage situations last year and Brandon Burrows is also in the picture. But early enrollees Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin both have an opportunity to play as true freshmen this fall. And once they enroll this summer, fellow freshmen Johnny O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough might join them in the rotation.

Right side of the offensive line: It’s fully expected that right guard Chris Burnette and right tackle John Theus to remain in the starting lineup this fall, but Burnette is out this spring while recovering from shoulder surgery and Theus will miss at least part of spring practice following foot surgery. Offensive line coach Will Friend has plenty of candidates to choose from who could take advantage of the available playing time, including Mark Beard, Austin Long, Watts Dantzler and Greg Pyke. If some of those linemen acquit themselves well this spring, it would not be a surprise to see Friend expand his line rotation to include them in the fall.