Georgia begins preseason practice amid high expectations

ATHENS — The initial USA Today coaches poll was released shortly before Georgia head football coach Mark Richt addressed the local media Thursday at Butts-Mehre Heritage Hall.

And the way he sees it, the Bulldogs’ No. 5 preseason ranking make for some lofty expectations that are, well, pretty much expected.

“I think that’s where we are on (my ballot). We’re five or six on mine,” Richt said.

How long Georgia, which finished last season ranked No. 7 in the BCS standings and as high as No. 4 in the coaches poll, stays in the top five will likely be determined very quickly.

The Bulldogs face three teams ranked in the top 13 of the preseason poll — No. 7 South Carolina, No. 8 Clemson and No. 13 LSU — in the first four weeks of the season, beginning with their Aug. 31 opener at Clemson.

So, it was apparent to every coach and player that everyone had to get right to work once they took the field for the first practice later Thursday.

“Because of where these teams are ranked in the preseason, that’s probably why you’re asking the question,” Richt responded when asked about the opening gauntlet. “But every single year, that first SEC game is a monster. … If you lose that game, you’ve got to run the table, basically. No matter who that next SEC game, it’s a monster. … So, they’re all really, really big.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about (Clemson). I always think about our first two opponents than anybody else because that’s who we game plan for in our offseason. Before our coaches go home for summer vacation, we like to have those first two games already game-planned and ready to go.”

The players are just as aware that they will know a lot about how the team’s 2013 campaign will go by the time that brutal early stretch ends Sept. 28 against LSU at Sanford Stadium.

And the fact the Bulldogs pretty much had to run the table to win the SEC East after an early-season loss at South Carolina a year ago gives them confidence they can be up to this season’s challenge, as well.

“I know we’re excited for the challenge,” said quarterback Aaron Murray, who bypassed a shot at this spring’s NFL draft to return for his senior season after setting school records by throwing for a 3,893 yards, 36 touchdowns and a 174.84 QB rating last season. “We have a great group of older guys who’ve been through a lot. We came in and were 6-7 our first year, then 10-4, and 12-2. We’ve been through it all, so we have a lot of experience, and I think we’ve done a great job of leading the younger guys and making sure everyone’s ready to go, and understanding how important every game is.”

Much of that experience will be on the offense, where the Bulldogs return all but one starter from a last year.

Among those returners are Murray, the potent sophomore running back tandem of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall — who combined to run for 2,144 yards and 25 TDs as freshmen — and an offensive line that is expected to feature no fewer than two former Gwinnett grads in Wesleyan’s David Andrews at center and Buford’s Dallas Lee at guard, and could also include another at times in Buford grad Kolton Houston.

And while expectations for the offense, which averaged 37.8 points per game last year, are lofty, Marshall says the neither he nor their teammates are taking anything for granted as preseason practice begins.

“Expectation-wise, we want to be the best offense in America,” said Marshall, who was second on the team behind only Gurley with 759 yards and 8 TDs a year ago. “That’s always the expectation and your goal, but obviously, we’ve got to start from (day) one. It’s not like just because we (had) a good system last year, it automatically up there (again). (Offensive Coordinator Mike) Bobo and Coach Richt always talk about it. We’re not close to where we were last year yet. We’ve got to work to get there.”

Georgia’s defense may have even more work to do during the preseason, with only four returning starters from last year’s stout unit that gave up an average of only 19.6 points per game.

Having lost such stars as Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins, Shawn Williams, Sanderson Commings, Cornelius Washington and Bacarri Rambo to the NFL draft, the Bulldogs will have to rely on some new faces this year.

And Richt said he will have an eye on several newcomers throughout preseason practice, including South Gwinnett grad and true freshman linebacker Reggie Carter, who raised some eyebrows after graduating high school early and enrolling in time for spring practice, and then finishing second on the depth chart heading into the fall.

“I’m not concerned, like fretting that we don’t have an answer for any position across the board,” Richt said of his defense. “I’m more curious to see just how quickly the entire defense can jell, and just watch them perform. It’s just like, I got a pretty good taste of Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall before we played a game (last year). I’m going to get a pretty good taste of what our defense looks like before we play a game. But until you get in a game, you really aren’t sure how everybody’s going to react under that kind of game pressure.

“Reggie’s going to get a lot of reps. He’s starting out as a No. 2 linebacker, but he’ll get plenty of work and plenty of opportunity to prove that he deserves to play. Right now, he’s still fighting for playing time, and he’s fighting for a starting position, as well. The big thing for a true freshman is if you can’t win the starting job, and I’m not saying (Carter) can’t, but just earn enough of the coaches’ faith and confidence that you get in the game. Then when you get in the game, it’s just going to extend your playing time.”