ATHENS, Ga. -- When Todd Grantham says that Georgia has eight or nine starters returning on defense, he's not exactly fibbing, but that number certainly exaggerates the level of experience that his rebuilding group will have in 2013.
Yes, players such as Devin Bowman, Connor Norman and Chase Vasser earned a start here and there, but a more accurate count is that Georgia has four regular starters returning in cornerback Damian Swann (14 starts in 2012), inside linebacker Amarlo Herrera (nine), defensive end Garrison Smith (eight) and outside linebacker Jordan Jenkins (six).
But Grantham insisted that "every year you're starting over again," when asked about how Georgia begins to replace departed defenders such as Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree, John Jenkins, Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams. For Georgia's defensive coordinator, the next month of practices will provide valuable clarity for when he and the other assistant coaches begin solidifying their lineup this fall.
"To say it's different than any other year, I don't think it really is," Grantham said. "We've just got some guys that are going to be new at doing it and they're excited and they're eager to show us what they can do, so I think it will cause some exciting times. But the most important thing to me is going back to finding out what players can do and how they can help us win."
It's rare that Georgia has had to replace so many starters on one side of the ball under coach Mark Richt, but not unprecedented. In fact, the two seasons under Richt in which Georgia returned fewer than four starters on a given side rank among the most notable in his 13-year tenure.
According to information provided by Georgia's sports communications office, the 2003 Bulldogs returned just three starters on offense and that team went on to win its second consecutive SEC East title. Four years later, the 2007 Bulldogs returned three defensive starters and went 11-2 record and finished second in that season's final Associated Press Top 25.
This will be the second time under Richt that Georgia has had just four returning starters on one side -- joining the 2006 UGA offense -- so this scenario might be unique, but previous results show that it's also manageable.
Every football coach loves the competitive aspect of spring practice, anyway, so the number of jobs available plays directly into one of their favorite talking points.
"There's a lot of guys there that are going to get a chance to prove they can do it," Richt said. "So we are looking forward to it. We're excited about it."
Nonetheless, there are glaring holes to fill at every level of the defense left by the 12 departed regulars from 2012.
It's not just that Grantham and company hope newcomers Chris Mayes and John Atkins can team with redshirt freshman Jonathan Taylor to fill Jenkins' and Kwame Geathers' spots at the center of the defensive line. It's not just that they hope Jenkins, a rising sophomore, can take over Jones' role as an elite pass rusher. It's also that they must identify candidates to emerge as dynamic playmakers as well as those who can capably fill slots near the top of the depth chart.
While there are several young players with immense potential, there is only a small handful with much on-field experience. That's why this spring is so valuable for returning players such as safety/outside linebacker Josh Harvey-Clemons, defensive end/outside linebacker Ray Drew, cornerback Sheldon Dawson and outside linebacker James DeLoach -- all of whom can claim starting spots between now and the opener against Clemson. The same goes for newcomers such as Mayes, Atkins and fellow early enrollees Tray Matthews, Ryne Rankin and Reggie Carter.
March will be a time when Grantham and company do a lot of teaching -- much like in the spring of 2010, when he first installed his base 3-4 defense and everyone was learning on the fly. With a handful of newcomers and players learning new roles, the spring allows coaches to focus on the basics without the pressure of a game looming, and it will be essential for those players to form a substantial knowledge base before preseason practices begin in August.
But unlike 2010, Grantham at least has the advantage that the defensive staff and the vast majority of his players already understand the concepts involved with his 3-4 scheme. For them, it's simply a matter of sharpening that knowledge to the point where they can step into larger roles and play with competence and confidence.
"We've got some guys that have been here for a while that it's their turn to show what they can do and we've got some guys that came in midyear. As coaches, we're excited to get started," Grantham said. "The big thing that we always go back to is one, fundamentals at our position, and two, learning to compete and play aggressive. I think you have to win a position before you can help us win a ballgame. And then finally learning what to do.
"If we can get those things done, I think that carries over to the fall because when we play aggressive and compete and get after it, we create turnovers and we're hard to score on -- and those are the things that we've done pretty well the last two years."