ATHENS, Ga. -- The 2011 season is barely over, but Georgia fans are already excited about the Bulldogs' potential for 2012.
Coming off a 10-win season and an SEC East championship, Georgia could return as many as 19 starters from Monday's Outback Bowl loss to Michigan State, meaning most of the players who played the biggest roles in the Bulldogs' resurgence will be back.
There are areas of concern, however -- the most obvious being the offensive line, where center Ben Jones and offensive tackles Cordy Glenn and Justin Anderson were all seniors.
"Obviously we've got three older players that we've got to overcome the loss of," Georgia offensive line coach Will Friend said. "But it will be all starting from scratch and going back to work and getting next year's group ready. I think it will probably be more competition because there will be more numbers. Then when you get a signing class in there with the ones you've got, that's going to be a big plus."
The Bulldogs are poised to add at least four linemen by signing day. Coffeyville (Kan.) Community College standout Mark Beard has already signed and will start classes at Georgia next week. Chester Brown (Hinesville, Ga./Bradwell Institute) and Greg Pyke (Baltimore/Boys Latin) join John Theus, who ranks 28th overall in the ESPNU 150, as high-schoolers who have pledged to sign in February.
All four players are in the vicinity of 300 pounds or greater, meaning they should have the size on their frames to play early if necessary, with Beard and Theus being the most likely candidates to contribute early at a tackle position with no obvious starters in the fold.
"Anytime you can sign a guy that can play right away, you've done great. That's what you're hoping for," said Georgia coach Mark Richt, who is prohibited by NCAA rules from commenting on players who have not yet signed. "But somebody's going to play tackle for us. I don't know who yet. I don't think any one man has got a starting tackle position nailed down here and I don't want to say anything about the class at all because I don't want to overstep my bounds, but it's wide open."
In truth, there is playing time available nearly across the board.
Dallas Lee, Chris Burnette and Kenarious Gates played all of the significant snaps at guard and should return next season. That doesn't mean they are locked in as the starters at guard, however.
Gates has played both guard and tackle, and Friend said Gates and true freshman Watts Dantzler worked at both positions during bowl practice.
"I think when you have some guys that play a little bit of both, if a situation comes or you get in a crunch, you can always be able to get your best five out there," Friend said.
As of the conclusion of pre-Christmas bowl practices, Georgia's coaches did not know whether guard Kolton Houston would be cleared to play after sitting out the 2011 season with undisclosed NCAA eligibility issues, but he would potentially bring another big body into the guard rotation.
The much more pressing concerns will in replacing the consistency and leadership that longtime starters Jones and Glenn brought to the lineup. Offensive coordinator Mike Bobo is particularly concerned about the center spot, where Jones started nearly every game since the middle of the 2008 season.
Center David Andrews appeared in nine games as a true freshman this season. But Jones was not just one of the team's most consistent performers -- he was an emotional leader and was elected team captain.
"I think we've got some good guys that can fill that void, not necessarily with experience, but some capable guys and then we're recruiting some guys that hopefully can fill that void," Bobo said. "The big thing's going to be the center, in my mind. I think we've got some guys that can play the position, but the leadership that Ben Jones gave to this football team, that's going to be hard to replace."
Then at tackle, Dantzler, redshirt freshmen Zach DeBell and Xzavier Ward and sophomore Austin Long will join Beard in the competition before the newcomers arrive in the summer.
Long finally appeared in two games this season after being set back by an assortment of injuries and illnesses during his first two years on campus.
"Linemen sometimes have to be able to play when they're not 100 percent healthy and I think he's figuring that out," Bobo said of Long during bowl practice. "He's had some very freak injuries that he can't help, but it's good to get him out there for a little bit more than two weeks at a time. This might be the longest he's practiced without being out. It's showing up."
Even with Jones, Glenn and Anderson in the fold, Georgia's line was far from perfect this season. Without a healthy marquee tailback available in the last four games -- Isaiah Crowell played in parts of three of the games, but was significantly slowed by an ankle injury -- Georgia struggled to move the ball on the ground.
The Bulldogs' rushing totals declined in each of the four games -- from 155 rushing yards against Kentucky to 128 against Georgia Tech to 78 against LSU to 51 against Michigan State -- and the offense sputtered in the second halves of most of those games because of the floundering ground game.
"We're not able to run the ball consistently, but there are going to be times where you have lost yardage plays or get stopped or get two, get three," Bobo said. "You've just got to keep firing away at it."
Barring injuries or other unforeseen circumstances, Georgia won't have many open starting positions to fill when the 2012 season begins, but the offensive line rotation is one of the few mysteries.
It's not only a mystery for fans and sports writers speculating on what the lineup might look like when the Sept. 1 opener against Buffalo arrives, it remains unclear for the coaching staff, as well.
"It's definitely going to be one of the big question marks for next year: Will we be able to piece together an outstanding offensive line? There's no doubt," Richt said. "It's not like you've got a bunch of guys coming back. There's a few, but not enough to say we've got five or six guys that have had a ton of experience and all that kind of thing. We're not sure exactly what it's going to look like, but that's why you have spring ball and fall."
David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.