Georgia Bulldogs: John Atkins

We're closing in on the start of spring practice at Georgia, so this week we will take a look at five position battles worth watching this spring.

Yesterday we examined the competition at safety. Today let's move to the defensive line, which lost a starter in Garrison Smith, but should otherwise have plentiful depth and experience:

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsRay Drew will be among those tasked with getting a better pass rush for Georgia in 2014.
Returning starters: A number of defensive linemen earned starts for the first times in their careers last fall. Defensive end Sterling Bailey (34 tackles, one sack, one tackle for a loss) started the first eight games and came off the bench for the remaining five. Position mate Ray Drew (43 tackles, six sacks, eight TFLs) started seven times, but never started more than two games in a row at any point. And noseguard Chris Mayes (31 tackles, one sack, one TFL) started to come into his own during his streak of seven straight starts to conclude the season.

Departures: Smith (63 tackles, six sacks, 10 TFLs) started all 13 games last season and was one of the emotional leaders on the defense, earning defensive team captain honors after the season.

Returning reserves: John Taylor (nine tackles, one sack, 1.5 TFLs) and Toby Johnson (seven tackles, 1.5 TFLs) are probably the first names to mention here. Both players appeared in 10 games off the bench in 2013 and should compete for extended playing time this fall. Taylor was a redshirt freshman and still looked a bit green last season, while Johnson was only nine months removed from a season-ending ACL tear when the Bulldogs opened preseason camp a year ago. Josh Dawson (eight tackles, one TFL) appeared in 12 games and started once at end and Mike Thornton (five tackles, one sack, one TFL) appeared in 11 games. Smith mentioned Thornton as a player who might fill a larger role in the Bulldogs' retooled 3-4 scheme under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt.

Newcomers: Redshirt freshman John Atkins is among the more intriguing players who will enter the mix this spring. He's big and quick enough to play any position along the line, and it wouldn't be a big surprise to see him figure into the line rotation early next season. Noseguard DeAndre Johnson is also coming off a redshirt, but he faces steep competition in the middle this spring. The Bulldogs also signed defensive tackle Lamont Gaillard -- ESPN's No. 55 overall prospect and No. 4 DT -- and ESPN 300 defensive end Keyon Brown, but neither player is on campus yet.

What to watch: The line came into 2013 with limited experience, but ranked among the pleasant surprises for a defense that disappointed overall. The Bulldogs defended the run fairly well -- Georgia's average of 3.7 yards allowed per carry ranked second in the SEC -- thanks in large part to typically stout play by the line. With six sacks apiece, Drew and Smith both ranked among the SEC's top pass-rushers, but the group generally struggled to generate a consistent pass rush or convert sack opportunities. Identifying strong rush men will likely rank among new line coach Tracy Rocker's goals for the spring, as will simply teaching his new players how he wants things done. This will be the third line coach in as many seasons for the Bulldogs, so the group has certainly become accustomed to change. It will be a big spring for all of the linemen since Rocker brings a fresh set of eyes to the table, without having formed an opinion based on their performances in previous seasons. It might provide a chance for someone like Johnson -- we recently discussed his situation here -- Taylor or Atkins to grab a bigger role than he previously enjoyed.

Players to watch: Toby Johnson

February, 26, 2014
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With spring practice still a few weeks away, this week we'll discuss five players to watch once the Bulldogs open workouts on March 18.

We talked about wide receiver Jonathon Rumph and offensive guard Brandon Kublanow in the first two installments. We move on Wednesday to a defensive lineman who could play a bigger role in 2014 now that he has had a year to heal from an injury and get his bearings at Georgia.

Toby Johnson (defensive lineman, Sr.)

2013 review: A late addition to Georgia's 2013 signing class, Johnson was the No. 4 overall prospect on the ESPN Junior College 100 and hoped to play a much larger role along the defensive line. He was coming off an ACL injury from the previous November, but he did not want to redshirt. So he played in 10 games as a reserve, finishing the season with seven tackles and 1.5 tackles for a loss.

Why spring is important: Playing time would have been available for Johnson even without Garrison Smith -- a 2013 senior who started all 13 games last season -- leaving the lineup. Johnson was listed as Smith's backup at defensive end in the bowl loss, and like Smith, he is capable of playing either inside or outside depending on the situation. The goal this spring will be for Johnson to prove to new defensive line coach Tracy Rocker that he deserves to be one of the leading figures along the line and not the role player he was a season ago.

Best case/worst case: Johnson was only about 10 months removed from ACL surgery when last season started, and while he said he felt healthy, he never made a dent in the starting lineup. Smith, Chris Mayes and the Ray Drew-Sterling Bailey combo handled the top spots along the line for much of the season, but a big spring could push Johnson toward the front of the line this fall. There are other contenders for playing time -- including John Taylor, John Atkins, Josh Dawson and Michael Thornton -- so this will be a pivotal spring for all of them. If Johnson fails to make a move this spring, he runs the risk of remaining as a utility man as a senior, which would be a big disappointment for a player who carried such acclaim when he signed with the Bulldogs.

UGA redshirt review: defense

December, 20, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia signed a massive 33-man recruiting class in February, and many of those signees -- like Leonard Floyd, Shaq Wiggins, J.J. Green and Brendan Douglas -- contributed immediately. Yesterday we reviewed the players who redshirted on offense. Today we move to the defense.

[+] EnlargeDavin Bellamy
Radi Nabulsi/ESPNDavin Bellamy, a former four-star prospect, could work his way into the DL rotation this spring.
John Atkins, Fr., DL
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 119 overall in 2012, No. 11 defensive tackle
This season: The prep school transfer did not seize a role in the defensive line rotation, but impressed coaches and teammates with a promising skill set that could help him play multiple positions in the future.
Veteran's perspective: “John Atkins' footwork is crazy for a big guy. He's like 320 -- we're the same size – and he has amazing footwork and work ethic. He's going to be one of those guys popping off the scene next year.” -- sophomore defensive lineman Chris Mayes

Davin Bellamy, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 299 overall, No. 25 defensive end
This season: Underwent shoulder surgery during the offseason, but could have played this season according to defensive coordinator Todd Grantham were it not for the emergence of Floyd and Jordan Jenkins at his position.
Veteran's perspective: “Bellamy's a big-bodied kid. I know just from being around him, he has a giant attitude. And when I say that, it's a good thing. He believes in himself and what he can do. He thinks he's the best thing since sliced bread, which is the attitude that you have to have when you're playing football because if you don't believe in yourself, nobody will.” -- junior defensive end Ray Drew

Paris Bostick, Fr., ILB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 55 safety
This season: Grantham compares Bostick's skills to those of another converted safety -- former UGA linebacker Alec Ogletree. Bostick suffered a toe injury during the summer and returned to practice during the season.
Veteran's perspective: “Bigger than what most people think -- real big dude now. He's just trying to learn the system and figure out where he's going to fit in at. … He's a real big dude, but he still runs like a safety. He's fast. He's going to be a real good addition to us.” -- junior linebacker Ramik Wilson

Shaquille Fluker, Jr., S
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 36 on Junior College 50, No. 2 safety
This season: Initially set back by an array of physical ailments, Fluker was designated as a redshirt candidate by midseason. He announced this week his plans to transfer in search of playing time.
Coach's perspective: “I can't comment on any medical situation, but everybody wants to play more, obviously, and I hope wherever he goes, he gets to play. I hope he finds a good home. I like him a lot. He's a good kid. I'm very confident we had his best interests at heart the entire time he was here at Georgia and we treated him well.” -- coach Mark Richt

DeAndre Johnson, Fr., DL
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 84 defensive tackle
This season: The youngest defensive lineman on the roster, Johnson needs to have a productive offseason in order to crack a veteran-heavy rotation next season, defensive line coach Chris Wilson said.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a low-pad-level player, just a young guy that's got to build up and get more experience and get comfortable with the game. … I think he'll be able to play the 3-technique as he has to learn the game and progress. For his size, he's pretty shifty, so I think he'll be all right.” -- Mayes

Kennar Johnson, Jr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 4 safety
This season: Injuries slowed Johnson's development early in the season and the coaches opted to redshirt him instead of utilizing another inexperienced player in a youthful secondary.
Veteran's perspective: “KJ is an athlete. He's very fast. It just comes with being able to compete and learning the system. I think he was kind of put in a bad situation coming in playing behind Corey [Moore], playing behind Tray [Matthews], who was here in the spring, and playing behind Josh [Harvey-Clemons] who's been here for two years. … [Johnson and Fluker were] playing behind guys who had already been here that grasped the system very well. That kind of put them behind the 8-ball a little bit.” -- junior cornerback Damian Swann

Shaun McGee, Fr., OLB
2013 ESPN rating: Three stars, No. 43 defensive end
This season: Capable of playing inside or outside, McGee's development this offseason will establish which of the two spots he plays next fall according to Grantham.
Veteran's perspective: “He's a little bit shorter, but he's very strong. His legs are massive and he can run. He has great speed off the edge, so I see that being one of his best contributions to the team.” -- Drew

Reggie Wilkerson, Fr., CB
2013 ESPN rating: Four stars, No. 163 overall, No. 15 athlete
This season: Enrolled in January and was on track to contribute this season before suffering a season-ending knee injury during summer workouts.
Veteran's perspective: “Reggie had a pretty good spring and he had a freak injury during the summer doing [pass skeleton drills] and we lost him. But I think he can be a big key and big part of this secondary with what we already have with Sheldon [Dawson], with Shaq and with [Brendan] Langley.” -- Swann
ATHENS, Ga. -- Rarely does the public see video evidence that confirms a team’s offseason happy talk. Luckily for Georgia freshman running back J.J. Green, he picked the right day during preseason training camp to make a ridiculous run.

ESPN cameras were on the scene last week for an on-campus tour stop when the diminutive Green escaped from multiple tackle attempts and wound up leaping onto and over a pile of four linemen to score during a 3-on-3 running drill. Multiple Bulldogs players and coaches had complimented the freshman during spring practice for his slippery running style, and the video of Green’s run proved they weren’t just blowing smoke.

J.J. Green
Tom Hauck for ESPN.comThree-star prospect J.J. Green, who was going to play receiver at Georgia, has been practicing at running back for the Bulldogs.
“I think it more so explains just the type of football player he is, period,” Georgia running backs coach Bryan McClendon said. “He’s a tough guy that doesn’t like to be denied at much, a guy that plays with a chip on his shoulder because he’s been told that he’s too [small] his whole football career. So he plays with a chip on his shoulder and goes out there and tries to prove people wrong.”

Green said he didn’t even know the cameras were there, much less that video of his run had gone viral on the Internet until well after the fact. Bulldogs coach Mark Richt told him during practice that the play had reached ESPN’s airwaves, and the dozens of mentions Green soon received on Twitter confirmed that his run was making the rounds.

“I was surprised a little bit,” Green said. “… Everybody just started sending me the video and I checked the Twitter account like three hours later and it was blowing up with it. But it was pretty awesome.”

The other side of the token, however, is that three Georgia defensive players had to answer for their inability to corral the 5-foot-9 scatback -- particularly nose guard John Atkins, who had Green in his grasp.

Defensive end Toby Johnson, who was also in on the play, laughed and said what happened was “embarrassing,” but accepted some portion of the blame for Green’s escape.

“It was as much on me, too. I can’t put my guys out like that,” Johnson said. “We was all in it together. We all lost.”

On the play, Green ran into a hole initially clogged by defensive end Ray Drew and then spun directly into Atkins’ arms. Green kept his legs driving and stayed on his feet as Atkins fell to the turf while trying to strip the ball from his hands, and then the running back jumped straight up and landed on top of four down linemen.

“I didn’t really see it [at the time], but when I saw it on the Internet, I was like, ‘Whoa! I didn’t know it was that spectacular,’ ” Atkins chuckled.

Next, Green planted his right knee on the back of falling offensive tackle John Theus, made an acrobatic lunge forward and landed on both feet before running away from the pile to cheers from the Bulldogs’ offensive players and coaches.

“[Atkins] fell off and everything else was just instincts,” Green said. “I didn’t really think about it, it just happened. I knew backside was open, but I wanted to make a play, so I hopped over the pile.”

Having played running back throughout his football career, Green is happy to be playing the position after initially expecting to play receiver in college. He switched to running back just before spring practice because of depth issues, and performed well enough that he seems to have found a home in the backfield.

“I’m a tailback at Georgia now,” Green said. “I can still play wide receiver sometimes, but I like playing running back.”

He has competition for playing time behind established stars Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, however. Fellow freshman Brendan Douglas has impressed the coaching staff with his performance in August, and A.J. Turman could still play a role once he returns from a camp injury.

But Green has clearly carved a niche for himself as a return man and change-of-pace option out of the backfield, and his slippery running style -- as evidenced by his 3-on-3 touchdown -- will make him another weapon that Georgia’s explosive offense can utilize.

“You’ve got to watch him,” observed defensive back Kennar Johnson, “or he’ll shake you real quick.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Chris Wilson needed only about 30 minutes in Georgia’s first preseason practice before he started fiddling with his depth chart.

The new defensive line coach’s face broke into a wide grin when explaining why he loudly informed Sterling Bailey -- who finished spring practice as a starting defensive end -- that Ray Drew was now the starter in Georgia’s base defense and that Bailey would be the first-team end when the Bulldogs play a nickel defense.

“We make on-the-field adjustments,” Wilson cracked.

[+] EnlargeRay Drew
Daniel Shirey/USA TODAY SportsNew defensive line coach Chris Wilson isn't afraid to mix and match players such as defensive end Ray Drew to get the perfect fit.
Apparently such a change is nothing new for Wilson’s new charges, who say that if Wilson doesn’t think someone is getting the job done adequately, he’s quick with the hook.

“[It happens on a] daily basis,” Bailey chuckled. “He just loves motivating us. He just wants us to play hard.”

Georgia largely stuck with a small rotation of veteran players along last season’s defensive line, but that practice created fatigue that Alabama obviously exploited in racking up 350 rushing yards against the Bulldogs in the SEC championship game. The Bulldogs’ coaching staff has vowed to rotate more players up front this fall -- and Drew and Bailey are among the seven or eight players that Wilson hopes will figure heavily into that rotation.

But they have to prove to their new position coach that they deserve the opportunity, as neither player has been more than a role player thus far in his college career.

“[Wilson] mentioned it to me one time before that he likes competition within the players because if he puts you in a position and you’re not getting it done, he bumps someone else in there,” Drew said. “He wants you to take enough initiative to say, ‘OK, I’ve got to get my stuff together and win my spot back.’ So we look at it as a competition between the two players, but it’s actually just a way to make each other better.”

There should be no shortage of competition for spots in Wilson’s rotation over the next few weeks. Junior college transfer Toby Johnson -- the No. 4 overall prospect on the ESPN Junior College 100 -- is “kicking butt” at defensive end thus far in practice, Wilson said, and other youngsters such as John Taylor, John Atkins and Chris Mayes have impressed him at points.

They have a prime opportunity to solidify those impressions when the Bulldogs hold their first preseason scrimmage at Sanford Stadium on Wednesday -- even if the depth chart will probably remain flexible well into the season.

“We never know what the set depth chart is,” Drew said. “One thing he made perfectly clear to all of us is he does not care who plays. He’s going to put in the guy that is going to play his behind off, do what he’s coached to do and make things happen. So it doesn’t matter if you’re an 18-year senior or if you’re a first-year freshman. If you’re getting it done and you’re doing what you need to do, that’s what matters.”

As of now, the “play his behind off” factor might be the most important element of the competition.

Yes, understanding their assignments and playing with the proper technique will be of utmost importance once the linemen take on the Clemsons and South Carolinas and LSUs that they will face in the first month of the season. But as they enter their first scrimmage, Wilson wants to see them fight for their jobs, viewing competitive fire as perhaps his top means of evaluation.

“Here’s the thing that I would like to see more than anything in our next scrimmage: I would like to see us play extremely hard. I’m talking about with relentless effort,” Wilson said. “And if they are playing that hard, that means they know what to do. And if we will play as hard as we can and know what we’re doing, I think we’ve got a chance to win all the football games that we play.

“And so if we can come away with just those two simple things that sound so simple, we really have become a better football team."

Three easy pieces for August practices

July, 31, 2013
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ATHENS, Ga. -- Aside from his first preseason camp, when Georgia’s defensive players were still learning the nuances of his 3-4 scheme, this might be the most important August of Todd Grantham’s tenure as defensive coordinator.

With numerous starters to replace and a boatload of newcomers joining the team this spring and summer, the Bulldogs’ defensive staff has its work cut out in first determining which players can help the team this fall, and then preparing them for that job.

When he met with reporters last week, Grantham explained how the staff will break its August preparations into three segments, starting with Thursday’s first preseason practice.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsGetting true freshmen such as Tray Matthews integrated into the defense this spring was huge for Georgia.
Evaluate the talent: All 19 of Georgia’s defensive signees qualified -- although defensive backs Reggie Wilkerson and Paris Bostick are both out for the season with injuries -- so the first thing the defensive coaches must do is evaluate who is ready to play.

“The first third of camp, we need to evaluate our talent and find out what our pieces are,” Grantham said. “And then find the guys that can help us win and put those guys in those positions.”

The Bulldogs would be in a particularly tight spot had seven of those signees not enrolled in January. Most, if not all (except Wilkerson), of those early enrollees could play in some capacity this fall. And some -- like safety Tray Matthews, linebacker Reggie Carter and defensive linemen Chris Mayes and John Atkins -- could play a lot.

The learning process will continue for the early enrollees in camp, but they have a head start on signees who arrived during the summer. Confusion will be the typical state of being for that bunch over the next couple of weeks.

“I think we got a pretty good idea of what those guys can do and the fact that they came in in the spring was very beneficial to us and them,” Grantham said. “Even though they are freshmen, they’ve been through the system for a spring, got a good grasp on it so they’re going to get to do it again in August. The big thing is we need to evaluate the talent.”

Prepare for different offenses: This category required some adjustment for Grantham as well, having spent a decade-plus in the copycat NFL before returning to the college game in 2010. A defensive coordinator in college has to be on his toes because he will face a wide array of offenses over the course of the season -- an issue that doesn’t exist for coordinators in the pros.

The Bulldogs will spend the middle third of the preseason practicing concepts that will help them defend some of those offenses, from the Clemson spread in week one to the Georgia Tech option in the regular-season finale.

“You’ve got some tough games coming along. Obviously the first two [Clemson and South Carolina] are going to be important, but ... we have Florida in the middle there, we’ve got Missouri, we’ve got Tennessee that’s new, and then you’ve got Georgia Tech at the end that’s completely different, too, and you’re always going to have different nuances each week.

“My approach and our approach has always been to introduce those guys to the concepts that they’re going to have to have or understand to stop these style of offenses. So during the middle session, you’re going to get ready for your season.”

Dig into Clemson: Georgia’s coaches formulated general plans for their first two games weeks ago. Once they’re two-thirds of the way through August, it will be time to begin implementing and modifying their plans for the Aug. 31 opener at Clemson.

The Tigers boasted one of the nation’s most productive offenses last season. And while they lost talented running back Andre Ellington and 1,400-yard wideout DeAndre Hopkins, they still return a Heisman Trophy contender in quarterback Tajh Boyd and another star in receiver Sammy Watkins. But Grantham said they will approach preparing for the opener in their standard fashion despite the challenges that exist in defending the Tigers’ explosive attack.

“Once you get to the back end there, that’s when you start focusing in on the first game and getting ready for that,” Grantham said. “I think that no matter who your opponents are, you need to do it that way because you need to be ready for the long haul. You’ve got to be ready for the entire season and the things that present themselves each week.”
ATHENS, Ga. -- Mark Richt still makes the occasional tongue-in-cheek wisecrack about his lack of vision when he redshirted future All-America tailback Knowshon Moreno in 2006, a season in which he had veterans Thomas Brown, Danny Ware and Kregg Lumpkin -- all of whom made it onto NFL rosters -- in the backfield.

But Georgia’s coach has stepped away from that conservative approach somewhat in recent seasons. Today, if a need exists and a new Bulldog is capable of addressing it, Richt’s coaching staff is more than willing to allow him to play a leading role -- with players like tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, receiver Malcolm Mitchell, outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins and former safety Alec Ogletree making big impacts as true freshmen.

That philosophy will remain evident this fall, particularly on Todd Grantham’s defense which must replace 12 significant contributors. Several of those replacements will be brand-new Bulldogs, while additional reserve roles will also go to freshmen and junior college transfers who impress the coaches over the next few weeks.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY SportsTrue freshman Tray Matthews enrolled early and claimed the starting free safety job during an eye-opening spring.
“The big thing is to evaluate the players that we have coming in,” said Grantham, Georgia’s defensive coordinator. “We’ve got roughly I think 17 new faces on our [defensive] roster from last year and we want to do a good job of evaluating those guys early and developing the skillset of those guys as well as the guys that we’ve got that have been here for a while.”

For the most part, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo’s starting lineup is in solid shape as the Bulldogs prepare to open preseason camp on Thursday. There are questions about how the offensive line rotation will shape up and which players will seize roles at receiver and tailback, but most of the key pieces return from last season’s high-scoring offense.

It’s entirely possible, though, that junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph and freshmen Tramel Terry and J.J. Green will contribute immediately at receiver. And it’s entirely likely that either A.J. Turman or Brendan Douglas, if not both, will carve out a role behind Gurley and Marshall at tailback.

“I’d like to have a third and a fourth tailback. ... I do like we got some bigger guys in Douglas and Turman,” Bobo said. “We’ve got to get those guys ready -- get them on special teams, get them playing, get them confidence, treat them like we treated Gurley and Marshall last year because we’re planning on playing them.”

Grantham’s defense is where the greatest concentration of newcomers will be found this fall, however. There are openings on the defensive line, at linebacker and in the secondary that will almost certainly go to a freshman or juco transfer.

Freshman safety Tray Matthews, who enrolled in January, was the talk of Georgia’s spring practices thanks to a number of big hits. But he’s far from the only new Bulldog who will be up for strong consideration throughout August as the coaching staff attempts to determine which players will contribute in the fall.

Up front, juco transfers Chris Mayes and Toby Johnson and prep school transfer John Atkins all figure to play a role. The No. 4 overall prospect on ESPN’s Junior College 100, Johnson is fully recovered from last fall’s knee surgery and has been working out without limitation this summer alongside his new teammates.

“He’s ready. He’s doing everything we’re doing,” senior defensive end Garrison Smith said. “He looks he’s 100 percent to me.”

Inside linebacker Reggie Carter also made a mark in spring practice and now has company from summer arrivals Johnny O’Neal and Tim Kimbrough, as well as Shaun McGee, who Grantham said will work at strongside and inside linebacker during camp.

And the secondary will be littered with new faces, including juco transfers Shaq Fluker and Kennar Johnson and freshmen Shaq Wiggins and Brendan Langley. Grantham mentioned Fluker as a candidate to play immediately at strong safety and said Wiggins and Langley will receive similar consideration at cornerback.

Tight end Arthur Lynch, for one, said the 6-foot-1 Langley has been impressive in the Bulldogs’ summer passing sessions.

“I think Langley’s a guy that can be pretty good,” Lynch said. “He’s very athletic and he runs like a deer. He can run for days and he’s very fast.”

Richt’s staff recruited the 31 newcomers with the knowledge that there would be numerous spots to fill this year, and that many of the signees needed to be prepared to play right away. That was the purpose of bringing in a program-high 13 players in January so they could participate in offseason conditioning and spring practices, and it was a factor even with signees who couldn’t arrive on campus until the summer.

They’ll soon get their chance to crack the rotation -- and don’t be surprised if on Aug. 31, a significant number of them are playing scrimmage downs and on special teams in the Bulldogs’ opener against Clemson.

“Anytime you can go against quality people in practice, it allows you to become better and truthfully it allows you to find out where you are,” Grantham said. “It allows you to find out what your strengths are and maybe what the things are you need to work on.”

10 NEWCOMERS TO WATCH

John Atkins, nose guard
Thomson, Ga./Hargrave Military
ESPN ranking: Four stars, Was No. 11 DT when he initially signed with Georgia in 2012
Breakdown: Atkins enrolled in January after spending last fall at Hargrave and ended spring practice as the Bulldogs’ No. 3 nose guard. He’ll compete with Michael Thornton and a fellow newcomer -- juco transfer Chris Mayes -- for a chance to contribute in the middle of the defensive line.

(Read full post)

It’s Rankings Week at DawgNation. Each day this week, we’ll rank some aspect of Georgia’s football program and the teams and players the Bulldogs will face in the 2013 season.

[+] EnlargeTray Matthews
Dale Zanine/USA TODAY Sports Tray Matthews could be one of the SEC's top freshmen this fall.
Today we’re ranking the top 10 freshmen we believe are most likely to make an impact this fall. On Friday, we’ll look at Georgia’s top five areas of need in the 2014 recruiting class and some of the players the Bulldogs are pursuing to fill those holes.

1. Tray Matthews: The most obvious choice on the list, Matthews enrolled in January, was a breakout performer during spring practice and put himself in position to start at free safety by the end of the spring. The big hitter with solid coverage skills is a lock to contribute and could be one of the SEC’s top freshmen this fall.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Nick Chubb’s verbal commitment last week was big not only because it added a record-setting rusher to Georgia’s 2014 recruiting class, but also because -- together with a previous commitment from another elite tailback, Sony Michel -- it addressed Georgia’s biggest need in this class.

The Bulldogs have Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, of course, but they will be draft-eligible juniors after the 2014 season. The only other scholarship backs on the roster are brand-new freshmen A.J. Turman and Brendan Douglas, so Michel and Chubb will add depth and the talent necessary to keep Georgia’s backfield train on the tracks.

With that recruiting need addressed, it brings us to this week’s DawgNation roundtable question: Now that Georgia has addressed its most glaring need for 2014, running back, what is the next position Mark Richt’s coaching staff should square away for this recruiting class?

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ATHENS, Ga. -- Georgia freshman defensive lineman John Atkins was arrested Friday on a pair of misdemeanor driving charges.

UGA campus police stopped Atkins for a seat belt infraction Friday afternoon and determined that he did not have a valid driver's license. UGA's sports information office released a media advisory on Friday evening saying Atkins was on his way to a 4:30 p.m. appointment at the state driver's license/state patrol office in his hometown of Thomson when he was pulled over. The purpose of the appointment was to clear up his license issue.

Nonetheless, he was booked into the Clarke County jail at 3:32 p.m. Friday and released 35 minutes later on $1,000 bond.

"I am aware of the situation involving John Atkins, and the discipline will be handled internally," Bulldogs coach Mark Richt said in the media advisory. "It will not involve any playing time."

Atkins enrolled at Georgia in January after spending last fall at Hargrave Military Academy. He is listed as the Bulldogs' third-team nose guard in the team's summer depth chart.

Spring cleaning: Garrison Smith

May, 15, 2013
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Editor's note: This week we continue to empty our notebook from Georgia's spring practices to tell the stories we didn't get to tell before the Bulldogs' G-Day game. Previously we featured fullback Quayvon Hicks, tight end Jay Rome, defensive end Ray Drew, safety Connor Norman, cornerback Damian Swann and receiver Rantavious Wooten. Today we recap a conversation with senior defensive lineman Garrison Smith.

ATHENS, Ga. -- Even Garrison Smith, Georgia’s lone returning defensive lineman with any significant experience, had difficulty adapting to a new coach’s methods early in spring practice. So he knew that a new coach and a complex defensive scheme would become major learning obstacles for his less experienced teammates.

Jeff Driskel, Garrison Smith
AP Photo/John RaouxGarrison Smith (right) is in the position of having to instruct his younger teammates on the ins and outs of UGA's defense.
“I’m starting over, but I’m just trying as hard as I can and just bringing these young guys up because we’ve got a sophisticated defense and young guys like Jonathan Taylor, Chris Mayes, John Atkins, right now our defense is calculus for them,” Smith said midway through spring practice. “It’s like basic addition and subtraction for me. But for them right now, it’s like they’re doing rocket science. If y’all were to watch some of the film, it would be a funny sight. It would be like they’re creating some type of new defense.”

And it wasn’t just the new defensive linemen who had a lot to learn. Multiple players across the board used the spring as a jumping-off point for their playing careers at Georgia, but the group made rapid progress during that valuable instructional time.

“You can ask [freshman inside linebackers] Reggie Carter and Ryne Rankin about the defense. Like I say, it’s rocket science for them, too,” Smith chuckled. “But that’s just a part of the game when you’re just a young freshman. They don’t expect you to know everything like a senior would, but at the same time, the coaches hold you to a higher standard and they get on you, but that’s just to make you better. They don’t want you to get complacent with not knowing enough. They want to push you as fast as you can so you can learn it.”

Having spent his first three seasons working under defensive line coach Rodney Garner -- who in December returned to his alma mater, Auburn -- Smith had to unlearn some old habits to satisfy new position coach Chris Wilson. It wasn’t like learning an entire defensive scheme, but it required some adjustments nonetheless.

“Even though I’m a veteran, I’m kind of like a freshman all over again because I’m learning new techniques of how to play different things because I’ve got another coach that wants me to play a different way, so I’m having to adapt every day,” Smith said.

That process will continue well into preseason practice, as Wilson continues evaluating and instructing the players who were available in the 15 spring workouts and adds to the mix others such as junior college transfer Toby Johnson, who learned just this week that he will be eligible to compete in the fall.

Smith seemed to like the direction things were heading in the spring, however, noting that the young defense was holding its own against the Bulldogs’ veteran offense more often than experience might have indicated.

“We’ve got one of the best offenses in the country, so if our defense with all these new guys can compete and play on the level of this great offense we’ve got, then the sky’s the limit for us because we’re playing against some of the best right now,” Smith said. “Other opponents, we’re going to be able to match up well against them if we can contain our own offense.”

Post-spring position review: DL 

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
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Editor’s note: Last week we started reviewing each of Georgia’s position groups at the end of spring practice. We took a look at the offense last week. Today we begin examining the defense, starting with the defensive line:

Returning players/stats: Garrison Smith, Sr. (Eight starts in 2012. 57 tackles, two tackles for a loss, one sack); Ray Drew, Jr. (23 tackles, 1 TFL); Michael Thornton, Jr. (No tackles); Sterling Bailey, So. (One tackle); Jonathan Taylor, RFr. (Redshirted in 2012)

Newcomers: Toby Johnson, Jr. (ESPN’s No. 4 overall prospect in the 2013 junior college 100, No. 3 DT. Expected to enroll this summer); John Atkins, Fr. (Hargrave Military transfer. Enrolled in January); Chris Mayes, Jr. (No. 87 in 2013 junior college 100, No. 14 DT. Enrolled in January); DeAndre Johnson, Fr. (No. 84 DT. Expected to enroll this summer)


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ATHENS, Ga. -- When the offseason conversations started about who might replace John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers at Georgia’s nose guard spot, it was almost as if Michael Thornton was the forgotten man.

Jonathan Taylor -- who shifted to defensive end during the spring -- Chris Mayes and John Atkins typically came up ahead of Thornton when such discussions started. And yet after a strong spring, Thornton has apparently pushed himself to the front of the line in new defensive line coach Chris Wilson’s estimation.


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ATHENS, Ga. -- Hutson Mason is not a rookie, but he felt like one in some ways during Saturday’s G-Day game.

After redshirting last fall -- his third season in college -- to gain a year of separation between himself and fourth-year starting quarterback Aaron Murray, Mason had to shake off some jitters entering his first competitive game in a year.

[+] EnlargeHutson Mason
Dale Zanine/US PresswireQuarterback Hutson Mason redshirted last season and treated G-Day like a comeback.
“Coming into this, I was treating this like a game for me because it’s been so long that I’ve really emotionally and mentally been like, ‘Hey man, this is game day,’ ” said Mason, who led the Black team to a comeback 23-17 victory over the Red. “I wanted to kind of see how my body would react being out there with 40,000 people. It’s not quite like game day, but you kind of get your body back into that feeling and getting ready.”

It was not a perfect day for the redshirt junior. The Black punted on his first three drives and he scrambled and threw an interception to freshman linebacker Reggie Carter at midfield on his fourth.

“I thought that the pick earlier was the worst decision that I’ve made at Georgia, but definitely this spring,” Mason said. “That was just pathetic. I’ve got to throw the ball away.”

But Mason improved as the day progressed. He threw a 20-yard touchdown pass to Jonathon Rumph in the second quarter and drove the Black to two field goals in the fourth quarter to provide the six-point margin of victory.

Mason completed 16 for 27 passes for 191 yards, one touchdown and one interception.

“We slung it around today pretty well and we had a juco guy in Rumph, so he doesn’t really know what he’s doing,” Mason said. “So I was really just happy for the guys to step up and make the most of their opportunities when they needed to.”

G-Day all-stars: Every spring game has its surprise standouts.

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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.

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