July 30, 2012

Jones: 'Guys are focused'

Count linebacker Jarvis Jones among those who can't wait for fall practice to get underway.

He's about to get his wish.

On Tuesday night the Bulldogs officially report, before taking the field for the first day of practice Thursday afternoon.

"It's the last phase until camp," Jones said. "Guys are focused, the staff is focused, everybody is ready to get busy and start working."

There's plenty that needs to get done.

Although the Bulldogs achieved one of their preseason goals by winning the SEC East, losses to LSU in the SEC Championship and Michigan State in the Outback Bowl left many fans still harboring questions about the team heading into 2012.

A troubling off-season did little to calm those fears.

Head coach Mark Richt has already announced that starting cornerback Sanders Commings will miss the first two games following his arrest for domestic violence/simple battery, while the summer months have been spent speculating how many games Branden Smith, Alec Ogletree and Bacarri Rambo will have to sit out following off-season allegations of their own.

Of course, running back Isaiah Crowell is now suiting up for Alabama State following his recent dismissal, making him one of eight former scholarship Bulldogs who are no longer on the team from a season ago.

All total, Georgia will enter the 2012 campaign with just 69 players who signed scholarships with the program out of high school. While many have wondered what effect this will have on the Bulldogs come fall, Richt doesn't seem concerned.

"There's been more attrition the last couple of years since I've been at Georgia, but we'll still have plenty of guys to field a team," Richt said. "One good thing is we're a very healthy team right now. We've got a couple of guys who are coming into camp maybe not full speed, (Xzavier) Ward is still coming off an injury and Sterling Bailey, but everybody is coming in healthy and ready to go."

Jones said that's a factor that can't be over-stated, particularly when talking about a team that finished fifth nationally in total defense a season ago.

"We had some great times last year, but I think for us to be great, we've got to build off of that," Jones said. "We can still communicate better, make more plays and get the guys ready who are behind us. We have to be ready to play better than we were last year."

With sophomore Malcolm Mitchell slated to see considerable time at cornerback, the loss of Brandon Boykin to the NFL might not be do difficult to replace after all.

Mitchell has already received lofty praise from coaches, who think he may already be the Bulldogs' best corner despite playing his entire freshman year at wide receiver where he caught 45 passes for 665 yards and four touchdowns.

The Valdosta native spent the entire spring working at his new position, although Richt hasn't ruled him out still seeing considerable action on offense.

"The main reason for that (practicing at corner all spring) is we wanted him to be able to function every down or any given down or distance in any situation," Richt said. "I'm not saying he's going to play on defense, because I don't know if anybody plays every single play these days, but I want him to understand our scheme well enough so Coach (Todd) Grantham has no hesitation with what he might want to do or call because Malcolm in the game, so we're getting him ready to play as much defense as he can."

Another storyline for fall figures to be the offensive line.

After losing Ben Jones, Justin Anderson and Cordy Glenn to the NFL, there figures to be plenty of opportunities to earn playing time. Look for John Theus, Greg Pyke, Austin Long, David Andrews, Watts Dantzler, Hunter Long, Ward, Zach DeBell, and perhaps Kolton Houston, to join vets Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette to get ample opportunity to do just that.

"They all know that they are a little bit of a focal point, needing to prove that they can do it and I think it's added some incentive from what I understand," Richt said. "But with offensive line guys, just coordinating five guys to hit the right guy is big and these guys are very sharp. If we can get five to fight like mad and put their hat on the right guy, I think we can function pretty good."

Other areas to watch will naturally be the development of freshman running backs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, although even veterans like quarterback Aaron Murray will have some improving to do of his own.

Despite setting a new Georgia single-season record with 35 touchdown passes, Murray was haunted by 18 turnovers (14 interceptions), mistakes that Richt knows will have to be curtailed.

"That's the thing. If you can make good decisions throughout the year, really respect the ball, he's going to complete a lot of balls, he's going to throw touchdown passes and there's going to be times he's going to put it on the money," Richt said. "When things aren't just perfect, you've got to manage that situation, whether it's throwing it up in the stands, wrapping it up … that's very important for all quarterbacks. But the thing is there's going to be some key situations, mostly at the end of ball games, when your quarterback has to make plays in crunch time. He needs to be able to make those types of plays."