Team preview: Georgia

The Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook previews the 2006 Georgia Bulldogs, exclusively on Insider.

Updated: July 31, 2006, 2:44 PM ET
Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook
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(All information as of July 1, 2006)

COACH AND PROGRAM

There's nothing like a little cold hard cash to let a guy know he's wanted.

Less than three weeks after Georgia ended its 2005 season with a disappointing loss to West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl, university administrators were putting the finishing touches on a deal that made head coach Mark Richt rich. Not wanting to take a chance on another school hiring away the man who has returned Georgia football to the glory days of the Vince Dooley era, president Michael Adams and athletics director Damon Evans decided to dig deep and pony up.

Richt's new deal extends for eight seasons at $2 million per. Among SEC coaches, only Florida's Urban Meyer, Tennessee's Phillip Fulmer and Auburn's Tommy Tuberville pull down that kind of dough. Richt can pocket another $400,000 a year if certain incentives are met.

"I can assure you we did not take this lightly," Adams told the media when the deal was signed. "At this time, it's prudent despite the numbers involved. We want to compete at the highest level."

If competing at the highest level is what Georgia wants, it has the right man to make it happen. In five seasons, Richt has led the Bulldogs to a 52-13 record, three SEC Eastern Division championships and two SEC championships. Only six coaches in SEC history have won two league titles in their first five years. One of those is Dooley. Fewer still won 10 games or more for four straight years. There are four others besides Richt: Bear Bryant, Steve Spurrier, Fulmer and Dooley.

"Mark has done a magnificent job since taking over our football program," Evans said. "This contract will put him in the upper echelon of coaches in the SEC and nationally as well. This confirms our commitment to him and our program for many years to come."

There is every reason to suggest Richt and his staff can keep things going for years to come. Last season was supposed to be a rebuilding year, but the Bulldogs won 10 games. The loss to West Virginia was a downer after Georgia dominated a good LSU team in the SEC Championship game, but it didn't hurt recruiting one bit; Georgia's class was generally ranked among the top five in the country.

Clearly, there is talent in abundant supply. When one star goes off to the NFL -- and 25 Bulldogs have been drafted in the Richt era -- another steps forward. Georgia has such clout that it pulls most of the players it wants from its home state, but it's also able to move into South Carolina, North Carolina and Florida. And when Richt and his staff identify a player anywhere else in the U.S., they can go get him. Recruits in the current class come from New Jersey, Maryland and California.

You have to have money to recruit nationwide, and Georgia isn't likely to run out any time soon. The athletic department reported a $24 million profit in 2005, tops in the nation. If Richt wants to hop on a plane and recruit a running back from Los Angeles, you get the idea no one's going to ask him to turn in receipts.

Richt will earn his paycheck this year. The Bulldogs once again have to replace a ton of departed talent. The SEC schedule never gets any easier, and when you're the kingpin of the league, you have to buckle those chinstraps and take your opponent's best shot.

But given Richt's history in Athens, count on UGA being able to handle most of those shots. That's why they pay him the big bucks.

QUARTERBACKS

If Georgia fans were hoping touted freshman recruit Matthew Stafford (6-3, 225) would leave spring practice with the starting quarterback job in his grasp, well, that didn't quite happen. But Stafford didn't lose the job either.

Senior Joe Tereshinski III (6-3, 217), by virtue of his experience and knowledge of the offense, has a tenuous hold on No. 1, but Stafford -- who was throwing passes in high school just a few months before -- showed enough in the spring to suggest the battle will be rejoined in August. And regardless of who earns the mantle of starting quarterback, both players are likely to see action in the Bulldogs' opener against Western Kentucky.

"It may roll into a little of the season before we make a decision," Richt said in the spring.

Actually, Richt and his staff have a couple of decisions to make. It appears likely Tereshinski and Stafford will take most of the snaps, but sophomore Blake Barnes (6-3, 219) and redshirt freshman Joe Cox (6-1, 200) won't go away quietly, even though Barnes broke his thumb in the spring and Cox, star of the scout team a year ago, suffered through a four-interception spring game. Even after Georgia decides on a starter, competition for the backup job could be just as fierce.

"We'll keep on letting this work itself out through the summer," offensive coordinator Neil Callaway said. "Then we'll evaluate. I wouldn't want to put a time frame on when we're going to make a decision. We'll have to narrow it down, obviously. I would think two weeks, maybe a week before that first game, we'll know how things shake out."

Tereshinski did all the right things in the spring, though he wasn't sharp in the G-Day game, completing just 2-of-7 passes for 45 yards and two interceptions.

"Joe is having a great spring," Richt said after a late March practice. "Leadership-wise. Just knowing what to do. Making the throws that ought to be thrown."

That was to be expected, considering Tereshinski first set foot on campus in 2002, when he enrolled early and was able to take part in Music City Bowl practice. But it wasn't the best time to be a quarterback at Georgia, considering four-year starter David Greene had a stranglehold on the job, and D.J. Shockley, who could have started for probably 85 percent of the other Division I-A schools in the country, was his backup.

Just to get on the field, Tereshinski -- a third-generation Bulldog whose grandfather and father played on SEC championship Georgia teams -- served in a variety of special teams capacities, including long snapper.

A year ago, with Greene having departed and Shockley ascending to the No. 1 job, Tereshinski stepped up to No. 2 and was called upon when Shockley injured his left knee against Arkansas. He passed for 93 yards in that game, won by Georgia 23-20, and was thrown into a tough situation a week later when the Bulldogs met Florida in their annual skirmish in Jacksonville. Georgia lost, 14-10, but Tereshinksi, who started his first career game, did what he could, completing 8-of-21 passes for 100 yards and scoring the Bulldogs' only touchdown on a 9-yard pass from Thomas Brown.

Shockley was back in the lineup when Georgia played again, two weeks later against Auburn, but Tereshinksi's brief time as a starter gives him that much more experience than Stafford, Barnes and Cox.

Now comes that age-old question: Does experience trump talent, or vice versa? Georgia's going to find out, because Stafford, from Highland Park High School in Dallas, is talented. He's the most highly decorated recruit at Georgia since Herschel Walker.

Stafford's high school stats were off-the-charts good. As a senior, he completed 209-of-322 passes for 4,018 yards and 38 touchdowns in leading Highland Park to its first Class AAAA championship since 1957. Stafford was a Parade All-American and ranked the No. 1 quarterback in the country by Rivals.com and No. 2 by ESPN and Scout.com.

How did Georgia reach into the Lonestar State and take Stafford away from the national champion University of Texas, which was Stafford's second choice? It all had to do with Richt.

"I was a big fan of Florida State [where Richt was an assistant for 15 years] for the longest time because both of my parents went there," Stafford told the Athens [Ga.] Banner-Herald. "He was calling the plays over there for a long time and I really liked how he called plays since I can remember. Meeting him and finding out what kind of person he was pretty much did it."

"More than any other coach that recruited him, and there were a ton of them, Mark Richt wanted to get to know Matthew as a person -- no one else did," Stafford's father John told the Athens newspaper. "Everybody talked about his talent and talked about what he could do and winning national championships and all of that. I really believe Mark, not just with Matthew, but all of his players, wants to get to know his players."

Richt is equally enamored of Stafford.

"When I'm looking for a quarterback, the first thing I look for is the ability to throw the football," Richt said on national signing day last February. "That's something that most people take as a given, but it's something you've got to have. From the film I saw on Matthew, he makes every throw you can ask a guy to make."

That arm was on display in the spring game. Stafford completed just 5-of-12 passes for 102 yards, but on his first throw he hooked up with Mikey Henderson on a 64-yard scoring play that turned out to be the game's only touchdown pass. Stafford was the only Georgia quarterback not to throw an interception.

"I was just trying to relax and have fun and play the game like I know how to," Stafford said. "I think I did pretty well."

The same couldn't be said for Cox, who completed 12-of-21 passes for 162 yards in the G-Day game, most among Georgia quarterbacks. Unfortunately, Cox also completed four passes to the opposition, two of which were returned for touchdowns. Richt said he wasn't concerned because he knows Cox, also a former Parade All-American, has talent.

So does Barnes, who in 2003 was rated the No. 5 quarterback in the country by recruiting analyst Max Emfinger. A year ago he played in three games, completing 2-of-3 passes for 9 yards. He was denied a chance to show what he could do in the G-Day game when he banged his right thumb on a defender's helmet while following through on a pass attempt in an April 3 scrimmage.

RUNNING BACKS

Last season, Georgia coaches had three tailbacks of equal ability and found it difficult to separate them into a pecking order. So they played all three and the Bulldogs piled up 2,108 yards, the most in Richt's five seasons.

All three return in 2006, but unlike a year ago, one of them has laid claim to a spot atop the depth chart.

"Thomas Brown has separated himself," Callaway said. "We're not afraid to play the other two guys and we will, but Thomas has done enough to put himself ahead of the other two."

Brown (5-8, 185), a junior, joined some rare company last season and hopes to take that a step farther in '06. He led the Bulldogs in rushing for the second straight season, something that hadn't happened at Georgia since Robert Edwards did it in 1996-97. The last man to lead the team in rushing for three straight seasons was Garrison Hearst, who did the deed from 1990-92, won the Doak Walker Award as a junior and bolted for the NFL.

Barring injuries, Brown should be the Bulldogs' leading rusher again this season. A year ago, he paced the team with 736 yards on 147 carries and scored four touchdowns. Included in that yardage total was a career-best 144-yard effort against South Carolina.

Brown's numbers were down from 2004, when he piled up 875 yards and found the end zone eight times, but that was attributable to Georgia's depth at tailback.

"Thomas is not that big a guy frame wise," Callaway said. "But he's a physical back. He's not a timid guy or a frail guy. He's a physical running back who's going to come at you."

If Brown is small and physical, junior Danny Ware (6-1, 233) is big and physical. Like Brown, Ware's 2005 numbers (492 yards, one touchdown) were down from the year before (724 yards, four TDs), but he nevertheless made some key contributions. Ware rushed for 109 yards against Louisiana-Monroe and was also a reliable receiver; he caught a pair of touchdown passes, against Boise State and Mississippi State.

The third member of Georgia's tailback triumvirate is junior Kregg Lumpkin (6-1, 220), a former Parade All-American who missed all of 2004 with a knee injury. He avoided contact in '05 spring drills, but was ready for action in the fall, rushing 66 times for 335 yards, with a season-high 74 yards against Georgia Tech. He scored three touchdowns, one a 34-yarder against West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl.

Georgia has depth at fullback, too, after the return of junior Des Williams (6-1, 245), who missed all of 2005 with a pectoral muscle injury. Williams was able to get plenty of spring practice reps because starter Brannan Southerland (6-0, 242), a sophomore, was sidelined after undergoing offseason shoulder surgery.

Last season, Southerland carried the ball 18 times for 26 yards and three touchdowns and also caught eight passes for 57 yards and two more scores.

In 2004, Williams ran for 29 yards and caught five passes for 43 yards.

WIDE RECEIVERS/TIGHT ENDS

This unit was so threadbare during the spring Georgia coaches had to convert a defensive back to receiver and give a mid-term freshman recruit a serious look. The upshot is that if the four receivers who sat out the spring while recovering from various surgeries, including senior Sean Bailey (6-1, 176), return in the fall, Georgia will have as deep a receiving corps as there is in the SEC.

The big name here is last season's freshman sensation, sophomore split end Mohamed Massaquoi (6-2, 198), a former Parade All-American who more than lived up to his high school clippings. Massaquoi served notice of things to come with a two-catch, 47-yard effort against Boise State in Georgia's opener, and proceeded to catch at least one pass in the Bulldogs first seven games.

Then he blew up.

Massaquoi caught a season-high six balls, for 108 yards and a touchdown, against Auburn, then caught six more passes, for 71 yards, against Georgia Tech. He finished second on the team with 38 catches, good for 505 yards and two scores. Massaquoi wasn't chosen to the SEC's All-Freshman team thanks to the monster debut seasons turned in by South Carolina's Sidney Rice and Vanderbilt's Earl Bennett, but he was an honorable mention freshman All-America pick by The Sporting News and also Georgia's offensive newcomer of the year.

"Mohamed is a guy who's got good speed, but he's not a burner," Callaway said. "He's big enough, but he needs to be a little more physical. What he does, he just goes up and gets the football. That's his forte."

Based on their performances in the spring, senior Mario Raley (6-1, 190), sophomore Kenneth Harris (6-3, 214), junior T.J Gartrell (6-1, 186) and true freshman Kris Durham (6-5, 200) will all get an opportunity to contribute.

Harris in particular has a chance to emerge after playing in all 13 games last year, including one start, in the Sugar Bowl in place of an injured Bailey. The first pass he ever caught went for a 40-yard touchdown against Boise State. He ended up with 11 catches for 216 yards, a solid 19.6 average.

Durham, from Calhoun (Ga.) High School, was voted the offense's surprise of the spring by the coaching staff.

A wildcard is former cornerback Mikey Henderson (5-10, 165), a junior who had contributed all of two career tackles at his old position. It wasn't a stretch for the Georgia coaches to switch Henderson to the other side of the ball; he was an all-state receiver at Buford (Ga.) High School. Henderson didn't take long to readjust, as he showed in the G-Day game, when he hooked up with Matthew Stafford for a 64-yard touchdown play. Henderson caught five passes for 87 yards that day.

"I've seen enough to know he's there to stay," Richt said after the spring game.

Rehab is the key word for this group. Among the quartet of pass catchers who missed the spring, three should return, and if Bailey has his way, he'll make it a clean sweep.

Bailey, who caught two touchdown passes in the SEC Championship victory over LSU, tore the ACL in his right knee during a practice session for the Sugar Bowl. He underwent reconstructive surgery and his bio wasn't even included in Georgia's spring practice media guide, but he worked hard in the offseason to try and get back.

"Talking to the trainers, they think it's a possibility he could come back," Callaway said. "But we won't force the issue. The last thing we want to do is for him to come back and get re-injured."

Bailey was the team's top deep threat in 2005, averaging 22.8 yards on his 16 catches. He made six plays of 29 yards or more.

Other springtime walking wounded included junior A.J. Bryant (6-2, 195) and sophomore Demiko Goodman (6-2, 189), both of whom underwent offseason shoulder surgery, and redshirt freshman Michael Moore (6-2, 195), who like Bailey suffered a knee injury during Sugar Bowl preparations.

Georgia's emphasis on the tight end position made Leonard Pope a star and also hastened his departure. After a junior season during which he led the Bulldogs with 39 receptions, caught four touchdown passes and earned first-team All-SEC honors, Pope took off for the NFL.

He'll be missed, but the Bulldogs have competition for the position.

Senior Martrez Milner (6-2, 240) played in every game last year and even started four times, catching 14 passes for 291 yards and a pair of touchdowns. He burned Boise State for 111 yards on just three catches, one of them a 56-yard touchdown pass from D.J. Shockley.

"Martrez is physically what you're looking for," Callaway said. "He's a big guy with good speed and does a good job blocking. But his nemesis is being able to catch the football. He's made some great catches, but at times he's dropped some balls he should have caught."

Sophomore Tripp Chandler (6-6, 253) showed good hands throughout the spring, but like Milner, he dropped his share of passes in the G-Day game.

OFFENSIVE LINE

The O-line was gutted after the departure of consensus All-American Max Jean-Gilles, tackle Dennis Roland and centers Ryan Schnetzer and Russ Tanner, so there is opportunity here for a few good-sized men to step forward. Somebody has to open holes for Georgia's trio of tailbacks, as well as protect the new quarterback, who will need all the help he can get as he adjusts to taking over the controls of a national power.

Attrition didn't claim all of Georgia's starters, though. Callaway, who also coaches the o-line, has seniors and 2005 starters Daniel Inman (6-7, 319) and Nick Jones (6-3, 295) back to build around.

Inman has started every game since his redshirt freshman season at split tackle. Last season he was chosen the SEC's Offensive Lineman of the Week for his performance against Vanderbilt and was also a second-team All-SEC pick by the league's coaches and the Associated Press.

"He's a big guy that understands our system," Callaway said. "He does all the things you need him to do."

Unfortunately, Inman didn't do what he needed to do off the field. In late May, Richt suspended him for the first two games of the season for an undisclosed violation of team rules.

Seniors Ken Shackleford (6-5, 315) and Michael Turner (6-4, 295) will compete for the other tackle position, though Turner is versatile enough to play any position on the line, "and may have to during the course of the season," Callaway said.

Jones also earned league lineman-of-the-week honors last year after grading out at 91 percent and racking up four "dominator" blocks against Kentucky. He started every game and has 28 career starts while rotating between center and guard.

"He's played since the last half of his [true] freshman season," Callaway said. "Mostly at guard. But he understands what we're trying to do. He plays extremely hard and is a great leader."

Chester Adams (6-4, 320), a junior, figures to start at the tight guard spot. Junior Fernando Velasco (6-4, 315) will be the split guard. Still another junior, Zeb McKinzey (6-3, 285), will compete for time at guard, but a shoulder injury sidelined him during the spring and hampered his progress.

Callaway won't be afraid to throw a freshman into the mix.

"We've got six to seven guys we feel good about," Callaway said. "But you'd like to have more. So if a freshman is ready, we'd play him. No doubt about it."

KICKERS

Before last season, junior Brandon Coutu (6-0, 185) could claim only two made field goals in his career. But one of those was a big one -- a 44-yarder in the Bulldogs' 2004 regular-season final victory over rival Georgia Tech.

Coutu took whatever momentum that field goal provided and ran with it, beating out 2004 starter Andy Bailey in the spring of '05. Bailey had won the job over Coutu in spring practice the year before.

This spring, there was no competition.

That's because Coutu, given the chance to show what he could do as the No. 1 guy, went out and had an All-American year. That's third team, to be exact (Associated Press), and he also claimed first-team All-SEC honors from the AP and the league's coaches.

Coutu led the league in scoring with 114 points, making all 45 of his PAT attempts and 23-of-29 field goals. He ripped a 58-yarder against Louisiana-Monroe, a school record without a tee. Just to prove that monstrous boot was no fluke, Coutu led the SEC in long distance kicking, going 7-for-9 from 40-49 yards.

And what of Bailey (6-2, 220), who's just a junior? He's still around, giving the Bulldogs as worry-free a kicking game as any in the country. As a freshman in 2004, Bailey led Georgia in scoring with 78 points, making 36-of-37 PATs and 14-of-20 field goals (with a long of 46). It's a testament to the worth of Coutu, who also handles kickoffs, that Bailey didn't even see the field last year.

DEFENSIVE LINE

During his time at Georgia, senior defensive end Quentin Moses (6-5, 250) has resisted the lure of college hoops and the NFL. Now he's poised to become another in a long line of Georgia All-Americans.

We'll get to his physical attributes in a second, but first a word or two about what's going on inside Moses' head. It's not by accident he landed on the SEC's Academic Honor Rolls last season. And he's not just book smart. There's plenty of evidence to suggest Moses has got some common sense going for him as well. Consider some wise decisions he's made:

First, he realized after a season's dalliance with the Bulldogs' basketball team that there wasn't much call for 6-5 post players in the NBA. Next, like so few potential pro prospects today, he resisted the urge to give up his eligibility for an early shot at the NFL, correctly reasoning that he could improve his stock if he puts up another season like he had in '05.

And what a year he had. Here's a telling statistic: 73 percent of Moses' 44 tackles were made behind the line of scrimmage. He led Georgia and was second in the SEC behind Mississippi State's Willie Evans with 11.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. He was an easy pick by the coaches and the media for the two All-SEC teams and was a third-team All-America selection by Rivals.com.

"You saw Quentin coming," said Georgia defensive coordinator Willie Martinez. "Even when he was tinkering around with basketball, you knew the kind of player he could become. And when he began to focus on football, he took off. This kid's got so many strengths, but if you were to sum them up, you'd point to his athleticism, durability and playmaking ability. The only thing he's not is vocal. We'd like him to talk more out there, but that's not his demeanor. People respect him so much on this team."

Georgia is downright nasty at the corners, for along with Moses, the Bulldogs can trot out junior Charles Johnson (6-2, 275), who last season counted four sacks and 8.5 tackles for loss among his 22 tackles despite not starting a game. Like Moses, this guy's a playmaker, as evidenced by some of his '05 exploits. Johnson scored a touchdown after recovering a fumble against Louisiana-Monroe and collected a sack and fumble recovery on the same play against Tennessee.

"Charles is another athletic kid who also played basketball some," Martinez said. "This spring, he started taking a lot more ownership [of the position] as we tried to sell him on playing harder on a consistent basis. He lost some weight and was outstanding the whole spring. He's going to cause some people problems."

Marcus Howard (6-2, 220) a junior who moved from linebacker to end last year, will give Moses and Johnson the occasional breather. Last season he made 24 tackles, including 1.5 sacks and 1.5 tackles for loss. redshirt freshman Roderick Battle (6-4, 249) is an heir apparent for Moses and will play this season.

Georgia's tackles aren't huge, but they're good. Senior Ray Gant (6-2, 277) started seven games last year and came up with 19 tackles, including 2.5 sacks. Sophomore Jeff Owens (6-3, 280) was a major hit as a freshman in '05, earning second-team Freshman All-America honors from The Sporting News and landing on SEC All-Freshman teams voted on by the league's coaches and TSN. He accounted for 2.5 sacks and three tackles for loss.

Redshirt freshman Kade Weston, (6-3, 315) and senior Dale Dixson (6-2, 308) will also see action at tackle, and there's a good chance another true freshman could do what Owens did a year ago and make immediate contributions.

LINEBACKERS

If college football awarded medals the way the U.S. Army does, most of Georgia's linebackers would have several Purple Hearts dangling from their jerseys. These guys are a rugged lot, but describing them as oft injured wouldn't begin to tell the tale.

Suffice it to say Martinez is hoping to get full seasons from his key personnel, and he's also hoping a couple of the freshman linebackers signed last February will be ready for the rigors of the SEC come September.

Pick a starting linebacker and he comes complete with an extensive medical history. There's senior Mike Tony Taylor (6-1, 237), who lost all of 2004 to a torn ACL and was limited to nine games last year while enduring more knee trouble. That he racked up 56 tackles, 5.5 tackles for loss and a sack speaks to his toughness and his efficiency.

Consider senior Jarvis Jackson (6-2, 218), the starter at the Will position. In 2005 he battled through a shoulder injury that kept him out of spring practice and a thumb injury that forced him to miss the Louisiana-Monroe game. Talk about tough -- Jackson still finished second on the team with 84 tackles, and he seemed to step up his efforts the more significant the game. Jackson made 11 tackles against West Virginia in the Sugar Bowl, nine against LSU in the SEC Championship game and eight against rival Georgia Tech.

Somehow, starting Sam Brandon Miller (6-4, 248) persevered through finger and knee injuries last season to make 40 tackles, include four for loss. He contributed two nine-tackle games, against Louisiana-Monroe and Arkansas. He underwent offseason surgery on his finger.

Even Georgia's reserves aren't immune to the injury bug. Senior Danny Verdun Wheeler (6-2, 244), who can play any of the three positions, sat out spring practice after undergoing wrist surgery. A year ago, he made 62 tackles, three of them for loss.

"I like our linebackers," Martinez said. "They all played as true freshmen, so even counting the injuries, they've played in a lot of games and have a lot of experience. We just don't have depth. We need two of our freshman linebackers to come in and play."

The Bulldogs will also regain the services of wayward Dannell Ellerbe (6-1, 228) a sophomore who plays the Will. Ellerbe, too, is recovering from surgery (shoulder) and worse, ran afoul of the law after a wild January night during which he borrowed a teammate's car without permission, used another person's driver's license to gain entry into a strip club, got into a car accident and was charged with DUI.

Richt, intolerant of off-the-field shenanigans after a rash of them the year before, suspended Ellerbe for the first three games. He might be the best athlete among Georgia's linebackers. Last season, he accounted for 15 tackles and an interception in 10 games.

Another sophomore, Marcus Washington (6-0, 245) played in 11 games as a true freshman last season and has the Georgia defensive staff excited.

DEFENSIVE BACKS

When Georgia didn't offer senior rover Tra Battle (5-11, 176) a scholarship in 2003, it was only because Martinez was concerned about his lack of size. Four seasons later, Martinez still thinks Battle -- who turned down scholarships to smaller schools to walk on at Georgia -- is too small to handle his position, but he's in awe of how Battle gets the job done.

"I still go nuts about his size," said Martinez, who also coaches the secondary. "But he's able to overcome it because of the way he plays the game. He's a smart, conscientious kid and is very tough. And he plays a lot bigger than he is. He's not very big, but he packs a lot of power when he runs at you."

Last season Battle finished third on the team with 71 tackles and intercepted two passes, the first of his career. As the Bulldogs' only returning full-time starter in the secondary, he figures to see a lot of action again this season.

"He's such a productive player," Martinez said. "And this year, we're going to look to him for leadership."

Two other veterans figure to join Battle as starters, junior cornerbacks Paul Oliver (6-0, 205) and Thomas Flowers (5-10, 186). Oliver started twice last season and impressed Martinez with his consistency. He finished with 28 tackles and finished second on the team with three interceptions, two of those coming against SEC foes South Carolina and Auburn.

Flowers is a special teams star (see below) who contributed in the secondary last season with seven tackles and an interception.

A couple of youngsters will back up at corner. Asher Allen (5-10, 180), is a true freshman who enrolled at mid-year after graduating early from Tucker (Ga.) High School. Rivals.com ranked him as the No. 9 cornerback in the nation, and he lived up to that billing in the spring. His 100-yard interception return of a Joe Cox pass in the G-Day game was impressive, but as Martinez points out, Allen also got burned on a 64-yard touchdown pass play from Matthew Stafford to Mikey Henderson.

"He's an exciting player who can make things happen," Martinez said. "Some of them could be bad. But we voted him the biggest surprise [on defense] of the spring. It seems like every day, he made a great play. He'll make a push at the corner position."

Ramarcus Brown (5-11, 173), a sophomore who played in eight games last season, was voted the team's most improved defensive back in spring practice. Like Allen, he returned an interception for a touchdown in the G-Day game.

Junior Kelin Johnson (6-1, 192) figures to start at free safety after playing in all 13 games a year ago and earning one start, against Kentucky. He finished with 14 tackles.

Antavious Coates (6-4, 200), a redshirt freshman, will back up Johnson.

At rover, a pair of sophomores, C.J. Byrd (6-2, 186) and Antonio Sims (6-0, 191), will back up Battle.

Don't be surprised if other freshmen join Allen in the secondary rotation.

PUNTERS

Senior Gordon Ely-Kelso (6-2, 215) has improved each season since taking over the punting chores as a freshman in 2003. He averaged 39 yards per kick as a rookie, but by last season that number increased to 42.9, second in the SEC and 18th nationally.

Distance explains only half the measure of Ely-Kelso's worth. A year ago he finished second in the SEC with 41 percent of his punts inside the 20-yard line. Ely-Kelso was deserving of the second-team All-SEC honors given him by the league's coaches and the Associated Press.

SPECIAL TEAMS

Thomas Flowers emerged as feared punt returner last year, finishing second in the SEC and 14th nationally with his average of 13.7 yards per return. His 54-yard scramble for a touchdown against Tennessee was a key play in a big road victory, and his 33-yard return against Georgia Tech set up the game-winning touchdown.

Flowers was chosen SEC Special Teams Player of the Week after both those games. Against the Yellow Jackets he brought back four punts for 79 yards. He burned the Vols for 66 yards on two returns. Tennessee hadn't surrendered a punt return touchdown in four seasons before Flowers struck.

Things aren't so settled at the kick returner spots after the loss of seniors Tyson Browning and Bryan McClendon. But Ramarcus Brown filled in when Browning was injured and returned two kicks for 43 yards against LSU in the SEC Championship game. Georgia was 10th in the SEC in kick returns last year, so Brown, who averaged 21.1 yards per return in limited duty, can do much to shore up that area.

Traditionally, Georgia has been solid in special teams in Richt's tenure. The Bulldogs have blocked 12 punts, eight field goals and two PATs and scored eight special teams touchdowns in Richt's five seasons.

BLUE RIBBON ANALYSIS

Richt has things rolling at Georgia, and there's no reason to think the Bulldogs won't once again be a threat to win 10 games and play in a major bowl.

Clearly, there are questions to be answered and new starters to be identified -- notably at quarterback, the offensive line and in the defensive backfield -- but several years of solid recruiting have placed UGA in that category of elite teams that don't rebuild as much as they reload.

For the most comprehensive previews available on all 119 Division I teams, order the "Bible" of college football, the 2006 Blue Ribbon College Football Yearbook, at www.blueribbonyearbook.com or call 1-866-805-BALL (2255).


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