Richt sees potential in revamped line

ATHENS, Ga. -- As Georgia prepares to open spring football practice March 20, coach Mark Richt knows his team's most glaring area of concern is the offensive line.

But as he evaluates the remaining personnel -- after the departure of senior starters Cordy Glenn, Ben Jones and Justin Anderson -- Richt does not believe the rebuilt line will necessarily be a weakness.

"Anytime you replace three starters, you always have question marks. The question is, do you have the talent base on the team to get the job done?" Richt said during his pre-spring teleconference last week. "You know what? I really am getting encouraged. I'm not going to say we're going to line up and just whip tail every single down, because that's tough to do in our league. But I've seen these guys work hard."

Georgia probably won't settle on a starting lineup in the spring -- signees John Theus and Greg Pyke won't arrive until summer, and Georgia's coaches believe Theus could contend for immediate playing time at tackle -- but the Bulldogs can begin finding some answers.

They return three experienced linemen in guards Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee and guard/tackle Kenarious Gates, while other players such as David Andrews, Watts Dantzler and junior college transfer Mark Beard could stake a claim on more playing time.

In total, Georgia's issue is not depth so much as a need to identify who will contribute, Richt said.

"You try to determine how many guys will be game-ready by the time we get going," Richt said. "There may be as many as eight or nine in my mind that, if they keep progressing, can line up and play SEC football. That counts the guys we signed, as well."

Rivalry at risk?
The SEC's athletic directors will meet at the league women's basketball tournament in Nashville, Tenn., to discuss football scheduling formats for 2013 and beyond.

Not surprisingly, Richt is among the many coaches who are against a nine-game league schedule, noting that nine league games plus an annual nonconference meeting with Georgia Tech might be too difficult.

"For me personally, I think eight's enough to prove that you're a good football team and if you win enough games you deserve to move on," Richt said.

The idea of a nine-game SEC schedule will face strong opposition, but the more likely eight-game format still could ruffle some Georgia fans' feathers.

The league is now using a 6-1-1 schedule with six divisional games, one permanent non-division opponent and one rotating non-division opponent. That arrangement protects traditional non-division games like Auburn-Georgia and Tennessee-Alabama.

But if the league goes to a 6-2 format, eliminating the permanent non-division opponent, the annual meeting between Auburn and Georgia -- which began in 1892 -- will be no more.

"I know our rival game with Auburn is very important to us and it would be kind of hard to not have that game, in my opinion, for a lot of reasons, just like people thinking about Texas and Texas A&M not playing," Richt said. "It's sad when you lose rival games, so I don't know if everybody would be excited about losing some of those rival games."

Speaking of Auburn ...
Richt has coached against former co-workers plenty of times throughout his career -- most notably when his 2002 Georgia team beat his old team, Florida State, and his mentor Bobby Bowden in the Sugar Bowl -- but this fall's Georgia-Auburn game will be unique in that regard.

Two of Richt's former defensive coordinators, Brian VanGorder and Willie Martinez, are now coaching at Auburn, Georgia's oldest rival.

Both men were members of Richt's original staff at Georgia, and VanGorder won the Broyles Award as the nation's top assistant coach before leaving Athens after the 2004 season. Martinez took over as defensive coordinator and remained in that job through 2009, when Richt fired him and two other assistants because of declining defensive results through several seasons.

Richt said VanGorder and Martinez's presence at Auburn might add some flavor to the rivalry but downplayed the importance of that storyline.

"I don't know if it would get much more emotional for our team and our coaching staffs," Richt said. "Every time we play those guys, it's huge to us. ... But when you know guys real well, and you know them and you love them, it probably adds a little something to it on a personal level.

"You kind of get that different sensation as you prepare, but as soon as you get competing, you just want to win the game. It's like any other game."

Contract talks
Georgia athletic director Greg McGarity and university president Michael Adams have both publicly stated recently that they are close to finalizing a contract extension with Richt.

"It's an important matter that we believe in our football coach, and we think he's going to be here a good while," Adams said at the Feb. 8 UGA Athletic Association board meeting.

While the contract extension talks began informally months ago, Richt said he was not concerned that the deal was not complete yet. In fact, he said he does not have any anxiety about the direction of the contract talks.

"When you rewrite a contract, there are things that everybody has got to feel comfortable with," Richt said. "So we're just ironing out all those things, and it's more a matter of just crossing your T's and dotting your I's type stuff. Greg and I have been together on our discussions, and everything has been going extremely well. I don't have any issues at all other than make sure it's right."

David Ching covers University of Georgia sports for DawgNation. He can be reached at davidchingespn@gmail.com.