Five Georgia position battles to watch

ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia’s players officially report for preseason camp Tuesday, just ahead of Thursday’s inaugural practice. Let’s take a look at five key position battles to watch as the Bulldogs push toward their Aug. 31 opener at Clemson.

Strong safety

Returning contenders: Josh Harvey-Clemons (14 tackles, 1 TFL in 2012), Corey Moore (14 tackles, 1 TFL), Connor Norman (18 tackles)

Newcomers: Junior college transfer Shaq Fluker

Breakdown: Once he returns from a one-game suspension to open the season, Harvey-Clemons will likely be the Bulldogs’ starting strong safety in their base defense and play nickelback in some situations. That creates an opportunity for another safety to make it onto the field -- not just for the one game where he’ll be absent. Norman can play either safety position and is the only contender with starting experience. But Fluker -- the No. 36 overall prospect and No. 2 safety on the 2013 ESPN Junior College 100 -- and Moore will get a chance to win the job in August.


Returning contenders: Damian Swann (53 tackles, 4 INT, 3.5 TFL), Sheldon Dawson (12 tackles), Devin Bowman (9 tackles)

Newcomers: Freshmen Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley, junior college transfer Kennar Johnson

Breakdown: It appears that Swann and Dawson are safe bets to start -- particularly Swann, who led the team with four interceptions last fall -- but what about when the Bulldogs need to play three corners? Bowman started once last year and struggled in limited opportunities. Look for newcomers Wiggins, Langley and Johnson to receive opportunities to contribute immediately, as the Bulldogs must develop some depth at the position -- particularly after promising freshman early enrollee Reggie Wilkerson suffered a season-ending knee injury during summer workouts.

Defensive end

Returning contenders: Garrison Smith (57 tackles, 2 TFL, 1 sack), Sterling Bailey (1 tackle), Ray Drew (23 tackles, 1 TFL), Jonathan Taylor (redshirted)

Newcomers: Junior college transfer Toby Johnson

Breakdown: While Smith, the team’s second-leading returning tackler, is almost a certain starter at one end position, the overall pecking order remains a mystery. Redshirt sophomore Bailey and junior Drew appear set to duke it out for the starting spot opposite Smith, while 335-pound redshirt freshman Taylor is also trying to carve out a niche behind the senior starter. Those four were able to compete throughout the spring. Now Johnson -- the No. 4 overall prospect on the ESPN Junior College 100 -- will enter the mix and is reportedly fully recovered from the knee injury that slowed him last fall.

Right tackle

Returning contenders: John Theus (14 starts in 2012), Xzavier Ward (Appeared in six games)

Newcomers: Kolton Houston?

Breakdown: Ward made the most of his opportunity earlier this year while offseason foot surgery knocked Theus out of winter workouts and a portion of spring practice. Redshirt sophomore Ward actually supplanted Theus -- who started all 14 games at right tackle last season as a freshman -- on the Bulldogs’ summer depth chart. Whether he can hold onto that designation once the Bulldogs resume practicing is a different story. Theus is now healthy and reportedly had a good summer. It should be a good battle between the two, and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said both receive opportunities to work with the No. 1 offense. Houston’s recent reinstatement could muddy the waters further, however. It remains unclear where Bobo and offensive line coach Will Friend will place Houston now that he’s back on the active roster. He is listed as the fourth-string left tackle on the summer depth chart, but actually completed 2012 spring practice as the starting right tackle. The versatile lineman could contribute at several positions along the line, so keep an eye on where he lands.

Nose guard

Returning contenders: Michael Thornton (0 tackles), Taylor

Newcomers: Junior college transfer Chris Mayes, prep school transfer John Atkins, freshman De’Andre Johnson

Breakdown: Fourth-year junior Thornton inherited the job from the massive duo of John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. And yet it’s reasonable to wonder how the line will function differently with the 290-pound Thornton in the middle instead of his 350-pound-plus predecessors. Coaches and teammates say Thornton can handle the job, but Mayes and Atkins -- who both weighed roughly 320 pounds -- are lurking behind him on the depth chart. And it’s not out of the question that Taylor could move inside in certain situations, either. The job seems to be Thornton’s to lose, but it would not be a surprise to see several different players lining up inside early in the year as new line coach Chris Wilson weighs his options.

And three more …