UGA freshmen already fill key roles

ATHENS, Ga. -- Keith Marshall didn't take long to get any freshman jitters out of his system.

The former five-star tailback prospect was on the field for the very first play of Georgia's season-opening win against Buffalo as a member of the Bulldogs' kickoff coverage team.

"It felt good. It was nerve racking because I was excited," Marshall said. "It was good to get the first hit out of the way."

Marshall and fellow true freshman Marshall Morgan, the Bulldogs' new place-kicker, were both on the field for that first play. Eleven more true freshmen would follow, with those 13 becoming the biggest group ever to play in Georgia's season opener since Mark Richt became the Bulldogs' head coach in 2001.

Most of them played a strictly supporting role, but others like Morgan, starting right tackle John Theus and tailbacks Marshall and Todd Gurley were key performers right away -- showing why Richt's coaching staff spoke so positively about the newcomers throughout the preseason.

"I really do like this freshman class," Richt said. "We've been impressed with them athletically. They're very coachable, teachable. A lot of it has been from a special-teams point of view that they're getting their reps, but we want them to get scrimmage down reps, too. I think we did a good job of recruiting that class."

Richt dubbed Georgia's elite 2011 recruiting class "The Dream Team," but the 2012 bunch might become its "Reality Team." The reality is Georgia had some glaring holes to fill -- in part because of the departures of several Dream Teamers who didn't toe the line as Bulldogs.

That problem, combined with the injuries and suspensions that caused six probable starters to miss the Buffalo game, created opportunities for the freshmen to play, and the results were understandably mixed. The Bulldogs had several young non-freshmen and first-time starters in the lineup Saturday, as well, so that combination contributed heavily to some of the spotty moments, but there is no better teacher than experience.

"There's no question, because it allowed a lot of guys to get their feet wet for the first time, so they were like rookies out there," defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said. "Sometimes it showed, but the thing with rookies or first-time players is they'll get better as they play. So we'll continue to work them and develop them and understand the things that happened and move forward."

Gurley was obviously the star of the game with eight carries for 100 yards and two touchdowns, plus a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown, continuing his stellar play from the Bulldogs' preseason scrimmages.

"He's got a knack for breaking tackles, and he's got more speed than you'd think for a big man," Richt said on his Sunday teleconference. "So [he's a] big, fluid athlete. You saw him on the kickoff return, saw him on the 55-yard touchdown run do some things that were really impressive, and hopefully he'll keep it up. It's early yet, but I've really been impressed with him so far."

Richt did not commit, however, to starting Gurley at tailback over sophomore Ken Malcome, who left the Buffalo game with a hand injury.

"Well, he'll definitely get the ball, that's for sure," Richt said.

Before the game, the coaches were unsure whether Morgan would handle all of the place-kicking duties, but he had a solid debut performance. He booted five of his seven kickoffs into the end zone for touchbacks, hit a 35-yard field goal after earlier missing from 45 yards and went 6-for-6 on PATs -- although he admitted he was nervous on the first extra point when he clipped the left upright.

"I guess I was a little anxious and went in a little too quick," Morgan said. "But we fixed it the next time, and it was smooth sailing after that."

Along with Morgan, Marshall, Theus and Gurley, outside linebackers Jordan Jenkins, Josh Dawson and James DeLoach, cornerback Sheldon Dawson, safety Josh Harvey-Clemons, punter Collin Barber, tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith, fullback Quayvon Hicks and walk-on center Preston Mobley all played in some capacity against Buffalo -- as did offensive lineman Mark Beard, a junior college transfer who was also a member of the 2012 signing class. That leaves only offensive lineman Greg Pyke, defensive lineman Jonathan Taylor, receiver Blake Tibbs and quarterback Faton Bauta as potential redshirt candidates among the Bulldogs' 16 true freshman signees.

More than half of the freshmen who played against Buffalo were active contributors on scrimmage downs as well as special-teams plays. So clearly Richt's coaching staff believes it got great value out of a fairly small signing class.

The newcomers have their first game, and the nervousness that accompanies it, out of the way. Now it's a matter of cleaning up their mistakes and continuing the learning process that just started.

"I was expecting to just come out here and play hard and do the best we can," said Marshall, who finished with a team-high 10 carries for 46 yards.

"Once we watch film, we can learn what we need to improve on, and I think we did a lot that we can get better at."