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May 6, 2014

Spring Wrap-up: Bulldogs prepping for life after Murray



Editor's note: This is the fifth installment of a 14-part in-depth look at spring practices from throughout the Southeastern Conference from the SEC writers of the Rivals.com network. Up today are the Georgia Bulldogs.

ATHENS, Ga. | Although there were certainly some big victories to point to from Georgia's 2013 campaign, passing out Maalox to Bulldog fans entering Stanford Stadium probably would have been a good idea.

Very little came easy for Mark Richt's 13th Georgia squad, problems accentuated by struggles on special teams and what at least statistically was the worse Bulldog defense in the program's history after giving up a 377 points.

By the time the Bulldogs' disappointing 8-5 season was over, former defensive coordinator Todd Grantham wouldn't have won a race to become the Clarke County dogcatcher.

But after Louisville's Bobby Petrino came calling, naming Grantham as the Cardinals' new defensive coordinator, Richt was given the opportunity to retool Georgia's biggest weakness from a season ago.

Enter Jeremy Pruitt, who as the defensive coordinator for Florida State, helped win a national championship season for the undefeated Seminoles.

Although Pruitt's ultimate impact won't be known until later, he's already showing signs of changing the defensive culture in Athens.

"Basically, he's a winner. He was a winner in high school, he was a winner in the collegiate level at the highest level, state championships, national championships," Richt said. "He's a good teacher, he does more than coach football. He loves coaching football, no doubt about that but he also knows how to deal with people, the players themselves and to help them grow. He fits the mold of what I was looking for and we're very, very happy to have him."

Granted, adjustments have had to be made.

It's Pruitt's way or the highway. You don't practice well, you don't play - no matter what your previous status on the team may have been.

During his last interview session of the spring, Pruitt made it unquestionably clear that each and every defensive position will remain up for grabs, and likely won't be determined until the Aug. 30 opener against Clemson.

'We're not as mature of a defensive team as we need to be right now, so I don't know," Richt said. "If you've got guys that are going to be seniors, they're all trying to learn a new system, it may be problematic, but we've got a bunch of young guys who are excited about the future."

FIVE QUESTIONS ABOUT GEORGIA

SEC SPRING WRAP-UPS
GEORGIA BULLDOGS
KENTUCKY WILDCATS
LSU TIGERS
MISSOURI TIGERS
MISSISSIPPI STATE BULLDOGS
OLE MISS REBELS
SOUTH CAROLINA GAMECOCKS
TENNESSEE VOLUNTEERS
TEXAS A&M AGGIESS
VANDERBILT COMMODORES
How will fifth-year senior Hutson Mason do replacing Aaron Murray, who leaves Georgia as the all-time leading passer in SEC history?

Statistically, Mason impressed after replacing Murray, who tore his ACL in Week 10 against Kentucky. In five games, Mason completed 67-of-110 passes for 968 yards and five touchdowns, including a 22-for-36 effort in helping to lead the Bulldogs back from a 20-0 first-half deficit in the regular-season finale against Georgia Tech.

Still, questions still remain.

After being spoiled by Murray the past four years, there's a segment of Bulldog fans who naturally wonder if the Marietta has what it takes to fill his shoes.

Again, time will tell, but Mason - like Murray - is a virtual gym rat who coaches says has the knowledge to run the same offense as his predecessor.

Can Todd Gurley stay healthy for an entire year?

Richt certainly hopes so.

Gurley's sophomore season was one big pain. After tweaking a quad in the opener against Clemson, Gurley suffered a high-ankle sprain in Week 4 against LSU and was never quite the same. Yet, despite missing three games, Gurley still rushed 165 times for 989 yards with 10 touchdowns and finished as the Bulldogs' third-leading receiver with 37 catches for 441 yards and five scores.

If healthy, Gurley is one of the nation's best.

Fortunately for Georgia, the Bulldogs are expected to have top backup Keith Marshall back from a torn ACL and welcome four-star Nick Chubb and five-star Sony Michel this fall to go along with redshirt freshman A.J. Turman and sophomore Brendan Douglas who rushed for 345 yards and three touchdowns.

What will Pruitt do about the secondary?

The Bulldogs' defensive backfield play last fall, was in a word - terrible.

Besides being prone to huge passing plays, problems with alignment plagued the secondary, which intercepted only seven passes all year.

During the spring, Pruitt used all sorts of different combinations, and when spring concluded was using a pair of walk-ons - cornerback Aaron Davis and safety Lucas Redd with the first unit.

Pruitt's job was made tougher when sophomore Josh Harvey-Clemons was booted from the team for allegedly failing a third drug test, which helped result in running back J.J. Green to the defensive backfield, where he played while playing at Camden County.

The Bulldogs do have cornerbacks Damian Swann and Shaq Wiggins back, along with safety Corey Moore, but Pruitt was anything but pleased with the results he saw in spring meaning there will still be more questions than answers when fall practice gets underway.

Can Georgia's offensive line be consistent?

The Bulldogs have to replace three starters off a line that had its ups and downs as a unit.

Georgia's offensive line won't maul you like some in the SEC, and typically have to rely on proper technique and execution to be effective. A running back the caliber of Gurley can help, but pass protection will be key for Mason, who is entering his first full year as the Bulldogs' starter.

John Theus will be a key figure one way or the other. The Jacksonville native is expected to play left tackle, but could be shifted to right if Kolton Houston has to play left guard, a position offensive line coach Will Friend struggled to find an answer for all spring.

Friend feels more confident about new right guard Greg Pyke who excelled during the spring and will have dibs on the spot heading into the fall. Mark Beard would likely play left tackle if Theus has to slide over to right. Center David Andrews is the only lineman assured of playing the same position that he ended last fall after starting there the past two campaigns.

Will Georgia's special team issues be corrected?

They'd better be. Bulldog special teams were a comedy of errors last fall. You name it, it happened.

So, for the first time in his 14 years at Georgia, Richt named tight ends coach John Lilly and new inside linebacker coach Mike Ekeler co-special team's coordinators.

Something needed to be done. Opponents returned one kickoff and two punts for touchdowns, while the Bulldogs suffered two blocked punt.

Vanderbilt even scored a touchdown on a fake field goal, a score which ultimately proved the difference in a 31-27 loss to the Commodores.


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