Bull­dogs be­gin prac­tices

The Covington News - - SPORTS - CHARLES ODUM

ATHENS — Aaron Mur­ray said Thurs­day he's glad he has had three sea­sons to pre­pare for Ge­or­gia's tough first few games this sea­son.

Ge­or­gia opens at Clem­son on Aug. 31 and also will play South Carolina and LSU in its first four games. Each of the three teams could be ranked in the top 15.

Asked how he would have re­acted to those early chal­lenges as a sopho­more, Mur­ray said, "Oh, I'd be ter­ri­fied."

As a se­nior, Mur­ray said he's "more ex­cited" about the sched­ule as Ge­or­gia opened prac­tice on Thurs­day. The Bull­dogs' of­fense is ex­pected to be strong with 10 re­turn­ing starters, in­clud­ing tail­backs Todd Gur­ley and Keith Mar­shall. The full of­fen­sive line re­turns, along with re­ceivers Mal­colm Mitchell and Michael Ben­nett and tight end Arthur Lynch.

Only four starters re­turn on de­fense from the Ge­or­gia team that fin­ished 12-2 and No. 5 in the AP Top 25 last sea­son with a 33-28 loss to Alabama in the South­east­ern Con­fer­ence cham­pi­onship game.

One year ago, the de­fense was the per­ceived strength as the of­fense broke in new starters at tail­back and on the of­fen­sive line. The roles have been re­versed.

"Now the de­fense is the side of the ball that was like the of­fense last year," Bull­dogs Coach Mark Richt said Thurs­day. "What are they go­ing to do? What can they ac­com­plish? Are they go­ing to grow up fast enough? I'm sure the de­fense wants to rise to that chal­lenge, but the re­al­ity is in talk­ing to the guys, es­pe­cially the lead­er­ship, is it's a new year and a new team and we want to ap­proach it that way."

Ge­or­gia was ranked No. 5 in the coaches' pre­sea­son poll re­leased on Thurs­day. South Carolina was No. 7, Clem­son was No. 8 and LSU was No. 13. Mur­ray, who al­ready grad­u­ated with a de­gree in psy­chol­ogy, re­turned for his se­nior sea­son af­ter con­sid­er­ing his sta­tus for April's NFL draft. He ranked sec­ond in the na­tion in pass­ing ef­fi­ciency as a ju­nior and said he re­turned be­cause he thinks this team can con­tend for cham­pi­onships — even with the de­mand­ing sched­ule. Lynch, also a se­nior, said the nar­row loss to Alabama helped Mur­ray's de­ci­sion.

"I wasn't too sur­prised when we lost the game and had un­fin­ished busi­ness," Lynch said. "I think Aaron came here to win cham­pi­onships first and fore­most, not in­di­vid­ual records or ac­co­lades. I think for him that was his de­cid­ing fac­tor. Had we won, I think it would have been in­ter­est­ing to see what he would have done.

"He came back for one more sea­son

and hope­fully at the end of the day we can say he made the right choice by com­ing back to win a cham­pi­onship."

Ge­or­gia tied its school record by hav­ing eight play­ers se­lected in the NFL draft. Seven of the picks were de­fen­sive play­ers, in­clud­ing lineback­ers Jarvis Jones and Alec Ogle­tree in the first round.

The sec­ondary will be es­pe­cially young. Cor­ner­back Damian Swann is the only re­turn­ing starter in the unit. Strong safety Josh Harvey-Cle­mons, a pro­jected starter, will miss the Clem­son game as he serves a one-game sus­pen­sion for an undis­closed vi­o­la­tion of team rules.

A sec­ond starter, kicker Mar­shall Mor­gan, also may miss the opener fol­low­ing his ar­rest last month on charges of boat­ing un­der the in­flu­ence. Richt didn't an­nounce sus­pen­sions last year un­til game days.

Ear­lier this week at a speak­ing en­gage­ment, Richt said South Carolina de­fen­sive end Jade­veon Clowney "might be the very best player who ex­ists to­day at any level." That be­came a hot topic.

Asked if he stands by that as­sess­ment, Richt amended his state­ment to say Clowney has the po­ten­tial to de­velop into a top NFL player.

"I think I said he might be the best one on the planet and it be­came news," Richt said. "I think he's the best col­lege football player in Amer­ica. There are a cou­ple of other guys you could de­bate on that. I think I said that if you give him a cou­ple of years of him learn­ing in the NFL, my bet is he'll be one of the best if not the best be­fore his ca­reer is over in that league.

"That might be a bet­ter way of say­ing it."

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