ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt still makes the occasional tongue-in-cheek wisecrack about his lack of vision when he redshirted future All-America tailback Knowshon Moreno in 2006, a season in which he had veterans Thomas Brown, Danny Ware and Kregg Lumpkin -- all of whom made it onto NFL rosters -- in the backfield.
But Georgia’s coach has stepped away from that conservative approach somewhat in recent seasons. Today, if a need exists and a new Bulldog is capable of addressing it, Richt’s coaching staff is more than willing to allow him to play a leading role -- with players like tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, receiver Malcolm Mitchell, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and former safety Alec Ogletree making big impacts as true freshmen.
That philosophy will remain evident this fall, particularly on Todd Grantham’s defense which must replace 12 significant contributors. Several of those replacements will be brand-new Bulldogs, while additional reserve roles will also go to freshmen and junior college transfers who impress the coaches over the next few weeks.
“The big thing is to evaluate the players that we have coming in,” said Grantham, Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “We’ve got roughly I think 17 new faces on our [defensive] roster from last year and we want to do a good job of evaluating those guys early and developing the skillset of those guys as well as the guys that we’ve got that have been here for a while.”
For the most part, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s starting lineup is in solid shape as the Bulldogs prepare to open preseason camp on Thursday. There are questions about how the offensive line rotation will shape up and which players will seize roles at receiver and tailback, but most of the key pieces return from last season’s high-scoring offense.
It’s entirely possible, though, that junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph and freshmen Tramel Terry and J.J. Green will contribute immediately at receiver. And it’s entirely likely that either A.J. Turman or Brendan Douglas, if not both, will carve out a role behind Gurley and Marshall at tailback.
“I’d like to have a third and a fourth tailback. ... I do like we got some bigger guys in Douglas and Turman,” Bobo said. “We’ve got to get those guys ready -- get them on special teams, get them playing, get them confidence, treat them like we treated Gurley and Marshall last year because we’re planning on playing them.”
Grantham’s defense is where the greatest concentration of newcomers will be found this fall, however. There are openings on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary that will almost certainly go to a freshman or juco transfer.
Freshman safety Tray Matthews, who enrolled in January, was the talk of Georgia’s spring practices thanks to a number of big hits. But he’s far from the only new Bulldog who will be up for strong consideration throughout August as the coaching staff attempts to determine which players will contribute in the fall.
Up front, juco transfers Chris Mayes and Toby Johnson and prep school transfer John Atkins all figure to play a role. The No. 4 overall prospect on ESPN’s Junior College 100, Johnson is fully recovered from last fall’s knee surgery and has been working out without limitation this summer alongside his new teammates.
“He’s ready. He’s doing everything we’re doing,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “He looks he’s 100 percent to me.”
Inside linebacker Reggie Carter also made a mark in spring practice and now has company from summer arrivals Johnny O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough, as well as Shaun McGee, who Grantham said will work at strongside and inside linebacker during camp.
And the secondary will be littered with new faces, including juco transfers Shaq Fluker and Kennar Johnson and freshmen Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley. Grantham mentioned Fluker as a candidate to play immediately at strong safety and said Wiggins and Langley will receive similar consideration at cornerback.
Tight end Arthur Lynch, for one, said the 6-foot-1 Langley has been impressive in the Bulldogs’ summer passing sessions.
“I think Langley’s a guy that can be pretty good,” Lynch said. “He’s very athletic and he runs like a deer. He can run for days and he’s very fast.”
Richt’s staff recruited the 31 newcomers with the knowledge that there would be numerous spots to fill this year, and that many of the signees needed to be prepared to play right away. That was the purpose of bringing in a program-high 13 players in January so they could participate in offseason conditioning and spring practices, and it was a factor even with signees who couldn’t arrive on campus until the summer.
They’ll soon get their chance to crack the rotation -- and don’t be surprised if on Aug. 31, a significant number of them are playing scrimmage downs and on special teams in the Bulldogs’ opener against Clemson.
“Anytime you can go against quality people in practice, it allows you to become better and truthfully it allows you to find out where you are,” Grantham said. “It allows you to find out what your strengths are and maybe what the things are you need to work on.”
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John Atkins, nose guard
Thomson, Ga./Hargrave Military
ESPN ranking: Four stars, Was No. 11 DT when he initially signed with Georgia in 2012
Breakdown: Atkins enrolled in January after spending last fall at Hargrave and ended spring practice as the Bulldogs’ No. 3 nose guard. He’ll compete with Michael Thornton and a fellow newcomer -- juco transfer Chris Mayes -- for a chance to contribute in the middle of the defensive line.
Reggie Carter, insider linebacker
Snellville, Ga./South Gwinnett
ESPN ranking: Three stars, No. 32 ILB
Breakdown: While recovery from a knee injury slowed Carter during his senior year of high school, he was back to full health in time to participate in spring practice, and he made full use of the opportunity. He attacked the defensive playbook and was impressive enough in practice to carve out a role on the depth chart for this fall.
Brendan Douglas, tailback
ESPN ranking: Three stars, No. 4 FB
Breakdown: A late addition to the class, Douglas’ combination of power and surprising speed could help him contribute as a reserve this fall behind Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Douglas and fellow freshman A.J. Turman will have a chance to claim the third- and fourth-string tailback roles immediately.
Shaq Fluker, safety
Meridian, Miss./East Mississippi Community College
ESPN ranking: Four stars, No. 36 overall prospect and No. 2 S on ESPN Junior College 100
Breakdown: With longtime starters Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams now in the NFL, Georgia has extremely limited experience at safety. A productive August could place juco transfer Fluker squarely in the mix to play a lot at strong safety, which was the idea behind Georgia’s signing an experienced safety in this class.
Toby Johnson, defensive end
College Park, Ga./Hutchinson Community College
ESPN ranking: Four stars, No. 4 overall prospect and No. 3 DT on ESPN Junior College 100
Breakdown: A will-he-or-won’t-he soap opera culminated in Johnson signing with Georgia well after national signing day, adding a coveted defensive line prospect to the Bulldogs’ already-enormous 2013 class. Now recovered from a knee injury suffered last fall, Johnson could immediately beef up Georgia’s rebuilding defensive line.
Brendan Langley, cornerback
ESPN ranking: Four stars, No. 227 overall prospect and No. 24 ATH on ESPN 300
Breakdown: Already one of Georgia’s biggest cornerbacks, the physical and athletic Langley will get a long look at cornerback this August. After early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson suffered a season-ending knee injury this summer, the Bulldogs need at least one or two of their new corners to play early because depth at the position is limited.
Tray Matthews, safety
ESPN ranking: Four stars, No. 129 overall prospect and No. 10 S on ESPN 300
Breakdown: No newcomer made more noise during spring practice than Matthews, whose solid ball skills and big-hitting style helped him grab a starting job at free safety in time for the spring game. He appears to be a star in the making in the Bulldogs’ secondary.
Tramel Terry, receiver
Goose Creek, S.C./Goose Creek
ESPN ranking: Four stars, No. 89 overall prospect and No. 9 ATH on ESPN 300
Breakdown: Terry was on campus for spring practice, but was unable to actively participate while recovering from offseason knee surgery. He is ready to go now, however, and Georgia’s coaches will slowly work the versatile wideout into the rotation this August to see if he is mobile enough to help the offense this fall.
A.J. Turman, tailback
ESPN ranking: Four stars, No. 260 overall prospect and No. 22 TB on ESPN 300
Breakdown: A solid downhill runner with good speed, Turman joined Georgia’s signing class because he liked the way Gurley and Marshall were able to contribute as freshmen. He’ll soon have the same opportunity, as the Bulldogs’ positional depth is limited behind the two star sophomores.
Shaq Wiggins, cornerback
Tyrone, Ga./Sandy Creek
ESPN ranking: Four stars, No. 39 overall prospect and No. 6 CB on ESPN 300
Breakdown: The highest-rated prospect in Georgia’s 2013 class, the spunky Wiggins possesses the coverage skills and short memory necessary to become a solid college cornerback. Grantham plans to give Wiggins and Langley long looks this August to see if they can immediately help at the position come fall.