ATHENS -- Georgia is opening its season with a backfield combination no one could have predicted a year ago.
Tailback Ken Malcome and fullback Merritt Hall, a Wesleyan graduate, are the surprise picks to line up behind quarterback Aaron Murray when No. 6 Georgia plays Buffalo on Saturday.
One year ago, Malcome quit the team for one day because he believed he had no chance to play.
Malcome says he is glad he stayed at Georgia. He is leading a tailback committee that also includes freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall.
Malcome (6-0, 224) plans to be more than just a bridge from the 2011 freshman rushing leader Isaiah Crowell to the new freshmen.
"I want it a lot," Malcome said of the starting job. "I'm just ready just to show what I can do as a running back when I'm really focused."
Crowell, dismissed from the team following a weapons charge, has transferred to Alabama State.
Malcome played in only six games and had only 142 yards rushing last season. Richt said Malcome is more mature and more determined as a third-year sophomore.
Richt said the change for Malcome began when he realized leaving Georgia "was not a good thing."
"I said if you do come back, I just want to see the best Ken Malcome, and academically, too," Richt said. "He has just matured a lot. I'm just proud of him.
"You talk about guys where the light switch comes on for a guy, and he shows that he's grown up a little bit. That's what Ken has kind of gone through, and it's helped him on the field and off the field."
Malcome said there is "no comparison" in his play now and in 2011.
"I'm way more ready than I was last year," he said. "I think the things I went through and that happened to me, I needed to go through so I could know where I stand and be mature about situations. I think from then to now, it's a good thing."
Hall spent 2011 as an obscure walk-on and scout team player. How obscure?
"I didn't know who he was until the spring," Richt said.
Richt noted it's difficult to learn the names of freshmen walk-on players because they wear different numbers each week as they play the roles of opposing players on the scout team.
That changed in the spring.
"I didn't notice him as a football player, as a Georgia Bulldogs football player, until I saw him start blocking people in the spring," Richt said. "He got my attention pretty quick."
The 5-foot-11 Hall was listed at less than 220 pounds at the start of preseason practice, making his bid for a starting job seem even more improbable. Now a redshirt freshman, he said he weighs about 235 pounds.
"He's not the biggest guy in the world, but he's extremely physical," said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.
Hall said he had no scholarship offers after playing at Wesleyan School in Norcross. He was invited to be a preferred walk-on at Georgia.
It has been a rewarding summer for Hall. He was awarded a scholarship two weeks ago and will start ahead of senior Richard Samuel.
"I'm just extremely blessed and thankful to be receiving this opportunity I'm in right now," Hall said. "It's going to be a fun year. I've received a lot of help from my teammates and my strength coaches and my football coaches to get to where I am."
Another new starter on offense is freshman right tackle John Theus. Junior tight end Arthur Lynch has two career starts, including one start last season, but only two catches.
Murray, a junior, said he has confidence in the new starters.
"I think we look great right now," Murray said.
"Credit goes to guys like Merritt Hall. They've learned the playbook and they've worked hard this offseason."