- David Ching, ESPN Staff Writer
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Considering the state of Georgia’s depth chart -- with 10 starters returning from last year’s record-setting offense and 12 key performers missing from the 2012 defense -- Tuesday’s first spring scrimmage has to be viewed as a win for Todd Grantham’s rebuilding defense.
Practicing under blustery conditions at Sanford Stadium, the defense surrendered just one touchdown off a traditional drive before the Bulldogs began working on situational possessions such as third-and-long and goal-line scenarios.
“There were some good plays made out there offensively. As far as putting together drives and scoring points, it just didn’t happen today. The defense did a really nice job,” said Bulldogs coach Mark Richt, who added that the offense scored two more touchdowns in four goal-line possessions.
It bears mentioning that fifth-year senior quarterback Aaron Murray did not participate in the scrimmage -- he was in Atlanta to accept the “Peach of an Athlete” award at a banquet -- and tailback Todd Gurley ran just twice for 15 yards. But overall the day belonged to a defense that generated at least eight sacks and six interceptions according to unofficial stats that UGA provided after the scrimmage.
“My overall impression has been exactly what I thought it was coming into this January,” said outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins, who accounted for two of the sacks. “We’ve got young guys, everybody on defense, swarming and making tackles. Everybody is hyped up, energized. Nobody’s loafing around. Everybody’s out there trying to make plays.”
In Murray’s place, redshirt junior Hutson Mason was able to take the first-team reps at quarterback. He had a productive day, finishing 14-for-23 for 186 yards and a touchdown pass that he estimated at 45 yards to Chris Conley, along with two interceptions.
Conley caught three passes for 72 yards, while Keith Marshall was the leading rusher with 11 carries for 71 yards.
“I don’t usually get too many reps with the ones, so getting out there and getting all the reps felt good, man. A lot more time in the pocket,” Mason said. “I thought we did well overall. With the conditions, I thought we threw the ball well. I thought we ran the ball great. So it was a good day. There’s definitely things that we need to improve on, things that I need to improve on, but I thought for our first scrimmage, I thought that it definitely was a positive day.”
Particularly since he enjoyed the rare opportunity to play outside of Murray’s shadow.
“I’m going to see if he can sign up for some more banquets and pass the reps around,” Mason cracked.
The defense held quarterback Christian LeMay to 1-for-11 passing for 13 yards, while Parker Welch was 5-for-10 for 33 yards and an interception and freshman Brice Ramsey was 6-for-10 for 51 yards and three picks.
The defense left the scrimmage feeling better about its day. Ray Drew -- whom Mason described as “unblockable” in the scrimmage -- said he had at least three or four sacks, although Georgia credited him with two. T.J. Stripling and Jenkins also received credit for two sacks, while John Atkins and Lucas Redd got credit for one apiece.
Inside linebacker Ramik Wilson was the leading tackler with seven stops.
“As a whole, I believe that with the players that we have stepping up, even though we did lose a few people off last year, I don’t think that we’re going to miss a beat this year if I had to judge by the practice that we had today,” Drew said. “The defense was on point today.”
That was the sentiment voiced by each of the defensive players who spoke with reporters after the scrimmage -- all of whom singled out early-enrollee safety Tray Matthews (four tackles, one pass breakup) as a player who is turning heads thus far in spring practice.
Cornerback Sheldon Dawson surrendered the touchdown pass to Conley, but he also intercepted two passes -- one in zone coverage off Ramsey that he returned for a touchdown -- and said that the defense is excited to prove that it is hungry to prove that it can take over for last year’s group that was loaded with NFL draft picks.
“We had a lot to prove and with a teacher like Coach Grantham, he’s a real teacher. He’s a real teacher,” Dawson said. “He don’t care if we mess up as long as we play that next play even harder, then everything’s good. But we try to come back on a lot of mistakes we’ve got.
“We’ll be in the film room for days, just sitting in there watching film, watching you slip, watching your feet. That’s why I believe that we’ve got a lot of people to prove wrong this year and we’re definitely going to prove them wrong.”
3dGreg Ostendorf and Alex Scarborough