ATHENS — The Georgia football team begins preseason practice on Monday, with plenty of weighty questions: Will Jacob Eason mature as a quarterback? Will Kirby Smart take the Bulldogs to the next level? Will Jim Chaney turn around the offense?
But those questions won’t be answered until real games begin. Over the next month, through 29 practices, Georgia has less weighty, but still important, personnel questions to sort out.
Here are the main ones:
The main focus should be here, at least when it comes to who will start. Everyone knows the drill by now: This was Georgia’s weak link last year and then it lost three starters, so the whole thing could be blown up.
And yet, two spots seem pretty much set with returning starters senior Isaiah Wynn at left tackle and junior Lamont Gaillard at center. Smart also has said that the Bulldogs at least will start preseason practice the way they ended the spring, which was with sophomore Pat Allen at left guard, redshirt freshman Solomon Kindley at right guard and senior Dyshon Sims at right tackle.
But freshmen Andrew Thomas and Isaiah Wilson could force their way into the discussion at right tackle. So could junior college transfer D’Marcus Hayes and redshirt freshman Ben Cleveland. Keep an eye also on whether there’s early buzz about the freshman guards, Netori Johnson and Justin Shaffer, as Allen and Kindley’s jobs are by no means secure.
STAR – OR STRONG SAFETY
Maurice Smith is the only full-time starter gone from the 2016 defense. Safety Quincy Mauger, who started twice last year, is also gone. Smith was the star, leaving that position vacant, but it could be filled by a starter at another position.
Aaron Davis has been a dependable and versatile defensive back the past three seasons, and will get a long look at star. If he wins the job, that opens up strong safety. The candidates there would include freshman Richard LeCounte, junior Jarvis Wilson and sophomore J.R. Reed.
If Davis remains at safety, the main candidates at the star position would be freshman Deangelo Gibbs and sophomore Tyrique McGhee. Or at least that’s how it looked coming out of the spring. The preseason, and the arrival of a deep group of freshmen defensive backs, could further scramble the picture.
Basically every spot seems up for grabs, especially the two most prominent: kicker and punter.
Sophomore Rodrigo Blankenship is the incumbent kicker, but David Marvin, the graduate transfer from Wofford, will push him. Punter has three potential candidates: sophomore Marshall Long, the starter last year until a dislocated kneecap cut short his season; graduate transfer Cameron Nizialek, who did well this spring; and even Brice Ramsey, the quarterback who has stepped in the past two seasons.
The return jobs are also unsettled, though Mecole Hardman seems the favorite to return kickoffs. The punt return job also could include Hardman and any number of receivers or defensive backs, as well as freshman tailback D’Andre Swift.
This competition didn’t exist in the spring, but now it does, thanks to Ramsey’s change of heart. The fifth-year senior elected not to transfer after all, so he’ll contend with freshman Jake Fromm for the right to back up Eason.
It’s an interesting call for Smart and Chaney: If Eason falters or gets hurt, do they go with the experienced Ramsey, or the new guy? And do they consider a redshirt for Fromm?
Speaking of which …
TO REDSHIRT OR NOT
Georgia just brought in the nation’s third-ranked class, per the 247Sports composite rankings, and even with only a handful of starting jobs seemingly open, it figures that many of these class members will play.
But it could take injuries or a very impressive preseason for some to dent the two-deep depth chart. Last year, for instance, freshman outside linebacker Chauncey Manac redshirted, mainly because of the experience ahead of him. This year, Manac is second team.
Inside linebackers Monty Rice and Nate McBride could be in that position this year. So could a few of the five cornerbacks the team signed: Tray Bishop, William Poole, Ameer Speed, Latavious Brini and Eric Stokes. And one or two offensive linemen, as talented as they are, could be redshirted if they don’t crack the two-deep.
That doesn’t mean all these players will redshirt. But with Georgia as deep as it’s been in awhile — right around the NCAA scholarship limit of 85 — not everyone can play.