ATHENS, Ga. -- When asked Wednesday about his goals for spring practice, Georgia coach Mark Richt rattled off three objectives that he hopes to achieve in 15 practices through the next month.
Echoing the vast majority of football coaches as they prepare to open spring ball, Richt said he wants to focus on fundamentals and work on building team unity between Saturday's first practice and the April 6 G-Day game. But, more important on a team that has numerous holes to fill, he also intends to emphasize competition at every turn.
"I want to see competition at everybody's position; I want everybody to prove that they can play for Georgia and that they deserve to start and they deserve to have playing time," Richt said. "And I also want to see competition -- offense vs. defense, every drill that we go against each other, I want a winner and a loser, and I want guys to win. I want guys to want to win."
There will be more than enough competition to go around this spring, particularly on a defense that lost 12 key contributors to graduation or early entry into the NFL draft. Gone are All-Americans Jarvis Jones and Bacarri Rambo, All-SEC picks such as Alec Ogletree and John Jenkins and surefire draft picks such as Shawn Williams and Sanders Commings.
Taking their places are several talented youngsters who were stuck behind the veterans and now have an opportunity to win starting jobs. Players such as Josh Harvey-Clemons, who Richt and defensive coordinator Todd Grantham said will play both safety and outside linebacker this fall. Or Ray Drew, who can contribute at both defensive end and outside linebacker. Or cornerback Sheldon Dawson, inside linebacker Ramik Wilson or safety Corey Moore.
Plus they'll have company from 13 January enrollees -- seven on defense and six on offense -- who will eye playing time of their own this fall and who helped their respective causes by making it to campus in time to participate this spring.
"All these guys really, the midyear guys, will get thrown out there and will struggle and will doubt and wonder to themselves why they left school to come here early," offensive coordinator Mike Bobo said. "They're probably already doing it with mat drills and then spring ball, but it's going to benefit them come fall, when the other guys roll in here and they're going to have a huge head start."
The Bulldogs enter spring drills with their share of concerns, however.
Bobo revealed Wednesday that tailback Keith Marshall will miss the beginning of spring practice after injuring his hamstring while competing on Georgia's track team. Following the offseason departures of Richard Samuel and Ken Malcome, that leaves only All-SEC pick Todd Gurley and former walk-on Brandon Harton available among Georgia's regular tailbacks to open the spring.
"It's going to be a touchy situation in spring ball," said Bobo, who added that early enrollee J.J. Green can contribute as a scatback in addition to his regular role at receiver. " We like to compete in spring practice, and we can't let our competitive juices get us so much where we want to win every drill and wear Todd Gurley out at the same time. We have to be smart about it as coaches."
Plus, offensive line coach Will Friend will have to shuffle his rotation, with starting right guard Chris Burnette (shoulder surgery) out for the spring and starting right tackle John Theus (foot surgery) out for at least a portion of the practices. Bobo said Kenarious Gates will shift from left tackle to right tackle to open the spring and that Mark Beard and Austin Long will move into the starting lineup at left tackle and right guard, respectively, while Burnette and Theus are out.
"Gates is the only guy here that has been here a long time and has played a lot of football, more than anybody that we feel can play all the positions right now," Bobo said. "The other guys, we're just kind of trying to figure out what gives us the best chance to be successful and what's best for Georgia. I would not say any player is entrenched at that position up front."
There are opportunities across the board on Grantham's defense, as the Bulldogs must replace valued players at every level. Even as he is quick to point out that eight or nine players with starting experience remain, Grantham also wants his players to understand that this is a prime opportunity to seize some playing time -- particularly before the other members of Georgia's 33-man signing class arrive on campus this summer.
"I think for all those guys, the next 15 days of practice to me is real critical, because we need to find out exactly what they know, what they can do, how they can help us and then where we need to fit the guys that are coming in, because we've still got some more talented young players coming once the summer gets here," Grantham said.
As Richt mentioned, spring football is about working on fundamentals and team bonding without the high-pressure circumstances of the fall looming. But its most significant purpose is to allow players to prove they deserve to be on the field when the games begin -- and perhaps the Bulldogs have even more to prove this March than in a typical spring.
"Spring's about a lot of things. It's about fundamentals, it's about getting back to basics, but it's also about competition," Bobo said. "So we want to create competition at every spot."