Practice Day 5: Ward a future coach?

ATHENS, Ga. -- Former Georgia players visit the Bulldogs’ football practices on a fairly regular basis, but Mark Richt’s coaches hosted an ex-Bulldog for a special purpose on Tuesday.

Hines Ward -- who retired from the NFL exactly a week ago following a 14-year, Hall of Fame-caliber career with the Pittsburgh Steelers -- is shadowing Georgia’s staff to see whether coaching appeals to him as a next career step.

Ward was dressed in the same UGA wind shirt, shorts and hat as Georgia’s coaches would wear at the typical practice on Tuesday, although he didn’t take part in the actual instruction.

“[According to] NCAA rules, he can just stand and watch,” said Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, who quarterbacked the Bulldogs when Ward played receiver in the mid-1990s. “I wish we could have him out there helping coach, but he can’t do any of that stuff.”

Still, it could be a first step toward Ward taking up the profession -- a possibility he hinted at when he served as a guest coach at the Bulldogs’ G-Day game in 2007. He has since gone so far as to call coaching at Georgia a dream job, much to the delight of Bulldogs fans everywhere.

Ward could have continued his pro career, but opted to retire as a career Steeler last week rather than seek employment with another club. He certainly looked like he could have put on a helmet and shoulder pads Tuesday and helped bring depth to Georgia’s somewhat depleted receiving corps.

“We could’ve put a jersey on him,” Bobo said.

* Georgia’s assistant coaches were available to the media Tuesday for the first time since national signing day and all nine made an appearance after practice.

Not surprisingly, the most-discussed subject was Malcolm Mitchell’s shift to cornerback this spring after winning SEC All-Freshman honors at receiver last year.

It’s apparent that the rising sophomore is a highly coveted player for both the offensive and defensive coaches.

“No comment. I don’t even want to talk about it,” Bobo said with a laugh when asked whether there was a power struggle for Mitchell’s services. He then added, “We have to do what’s best for the team and help the defense, but it’s kind of back to recruiting in my mind. I’m recruiting the crap out of him daily.”

Defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and secondary coach Scott Lakatos were equally complimentary of his capabilities at cornerback.

“He’s doing great,” Lakatos said. “He’s such a great athlete that he can be whatever he wants to be. He’s got a pretty good concept of what we’re doing so far, first couple days. He’s still learning. Obviously every play, it’s just a matter of him recognizing what he’s supposed to do because physically he can do it.”

* Mitchell’s position change is certainly the one that has received the most attention, but the coaching staff is experimenting with lots of possibilities this spring.

Another one to watch is Richard Samuel’s work at tailback and at fullback. Running backs coach Bryan McClendon said the rising senior is a factor in competition at both positions.

“A lot of times, some of those big-body guys in the past has had to crosstrain at both positions as far as pass protection-wise and things like that,” McClendon said. “He’s in the mix with both of those positions -- at one position just like he is at the other.”

* Another position experiment that could bear watching is guard Dallas Lee’s work at center. Lee practiced with the first-team offensive line in the early portion of Tuesday’s practice that was open to the media, but offensive line coach Will Friend said not to read too much into that.

“You’re trying to get where you can have the best five that you’re with at any time,” Friend said. “Really, working Dallas some there at the center gives us a chance probably to do that right now. Really, I’d like to be able to find the one thing like last year is we lacked having some competition at some spots, so I’d like to get as many guys playing different places where there is some competition for different places.”

The first-team line early in practice was Kenarious Gates at left tackle, Kolton Houston at left guard, Lee at center, Chris Burnette at right guard and Austin Long at right tackle. The second-team line was Austin Long at left tackle, Mark Beard at left guard, David Andrews at center, Hunter Long at right guard and Watts Dantzler at right tackle.

Friend said Gates has had the best spring and complimented Burnette for his work, but said the rest of the linemen have performed about the same.

“Gates has had a good spring so far,” Friend said. “It’s only five days into it. … He’s had the better spring. The rest of the guys kind of need to elevate like he’s done so far.”

* Asked how signees John Theus and Greg Pyke will fit into his plans once they arrive for preseason practice, Friend joked, “Can we get after spring ball?”

But he admitted that he expects both players to factor into his plans right away.

“I think that both freshmen that we got, they’re really talented guys,” he said. “I think they’re good athletes, they’re tough guys, they’re big. They’re going to get a shot, and that’s one thing these guys have to understand is right now is kind of their chance with those guys not being there. So they’ve got to make the most out of it because those two are going to get a shot when they get in here. That’s why we signed them.”

* Defensive line coach Rodney Garner said he still has to pester nose guards John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers about small details like technique, but said he is highly pleased with their work overall this spring.

“John and Kwame are both really, really coming on,” said Garner, who typically is hesitant to offer effusive praise. “…I’ve been very, very, very pleased with both of them.”