By Braden Gall (@BradenGall on Twitter)
The journey to claim the 2012 national title begins in February, March and April, as 124 college football teams open up spring practice over the next three months. Athlon will preview some of the top teams and storylines across the nation, as the countdown to 2012 inches closer.
Georgia Bulldogs 2012 Spring Preview
2011 Record: 10-4, 7-1 SEC
Spring Practice: March 20-April 14
Returning Starters: Offense – 6, Defense – 9
Passing: Aaron Murray, 3,149 yards, 35 TD, 14 INT
Rushing: Isaiah Crowell, 850 yards, 5 TD
Receiving: Tavarres King, 47 rec., 705 yards, 8 TD
Tackles: Shawn Williams, 72
Sacks: Jarvis Jones, 13.5
Interceptions: Bacarri Rambo, 8
Redshirts to Watch: TE Jay Rome, WR Justin Scott-Wesley, LB Sterling Bailey, CB Devin Bowman, OL Xzavier Ward, OL Zach DeBell
Keith Marshall, RB (5-11, 190), Raleigh (N.C.) Millbrook
Faton Bauta, QB (6-3, 225), West Palm Beach (Fla.) Dwyer
Mark Beard, OL (6-4, 290), Adamsville (Ala.) Coffeyville C.C. (Kan.)
SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
Sept. 1 Buffalo
Sept. 8 at Missouri
Sept. 15 Florida Atlantic
Sept. 22 Vanderbilt
Sept. 29 Tennessee
Oct. 6 at South Carolina
Oct. 13 Bye Week
Oct. 20 at Kentucky
Oct. 27 Florida
Nov. 3 Ole Miss
Nov. 10 at Auburn
Nov. 17 Georgia Southern
Nov. 24 Georgia Tech
Offensive Strength: Leadership and the passing game. With Aaron Murray returning after tossing 35 touchdown passes last season, offensive leadership should start and end with No. 11. He returns a glut of weapons despite the loss of tight end Orson Charles. If Mark Richt has the luxury of playing Malcolm Mitchell at cornerback, he must feel confident in his talented receiving corps.
Offensive Weakness: This one of the easier weaknesses to pinpoint in the SEC. The offensive line is the clear area of concern for this unit heading into spring. Replacing two All-SEC selections and another player who started every game is going to be the biggest questions for analysts to cover this summer.
Defensive Strength: This Georgia front seven should be one of the best in the nation. With the exception of DeAngelo Tyson, the third season under 3-4 guru Todd Grantham will feature virtually the same rotation of players that finished behind only Alabama and LSU in rushing defense in the SEC.
Defensive Weakness: On a defense that finished fifth in the nation last year and returns virtually intact, any weakness is a minor concern. However, the fact Richt might have to move Mitchell - who proved to be a dynamic offensive weapon as a freshman - to cornerback to help fill the void left by Brandon Boykin, indicates he has questions about his secondary. This is a group that cannot afford a significant injury.
Spring Storylines Facing the Bulldogs:
1. Richt and Murray said goodbye to first-team All-SEC left tackle Cordy Glenn, second-team All-SEC center Ben Jones and right tackle Justin Anderson. This group finished only seventh in the SEC in rushing a year ago and struggled mightily to move the football on the ground in the final two games. Yes, it was against LSU and Michigan State, but the Dawgs mustered only 1.7 yards per carry on 73 rushing attempts in those two losses to end 2011. Those are the types of teams Georgia has to be successful against in a conference that is built upon power football. David Andrews looks to be the leader in the clubhouse to replace Jones at center while Austin Long, Watts Danztler, junior college transfer Mark Beard, and come summer time, freshmen John Theus and Greg Pyke, will battle it out for time at tackle. Redshirt freshmen Xzavier Ward and Zach DeBell could also figure heavily into the mix for a group that will be the most closely monitored this spring. The good news is the depth at guard is outstanding as Kenarious Gates, Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette return with starting experience. This unit is the key between another four-loss season and a truly special fall in Athens, Ga.
2. If the words National Championship want to be tossed around Athens this summer, the youngsters on this roster need to mature. Handling the expections of being the defending East champions will be an enourmous focus for the coaching staff. If local media can describe the start of spring practice like this, "Georgia begins spring practice on Tuesday, officially ushering in a 2012 season that has already started garnering buzz and anticipation at a level not seen in Athens for years," then keeping the team grounded and hungry will be that much more difficult. Young players in key positions — Isaiah Crowell, John Theus, Jay Rome, Ray Drew, Malcolm Mitchell, Marlon Brown — need to show they are ready to shoulder the load of the SEC spotlight.
3. Special teams have always been a staple under Richt at Georgia and he will need to find specialists of all kinds this spring. Longtime kicker Blair Walsh, who struggled in his final season in Athens (21 of 35), and punter Drew Butler, who earned All-SEC honorable mention, have exhausted their eligibility. Finding replacements will be a top priority this spring. Filling the hole by return specialist Brandon Boykin might be a taller order. The loss of the school's all-time kick return leader (2,263 yards) will be felt not only on special teams, but also...
4. In the ever-thinning defensive backfield. This unit has watched Boykin graduate, Jordan Love transfer and Nick Marshall and Chris Sanders get booted off the team. With suspensions looming for returning starters Sanders Commings and Branden Smith, finding suitable defensive backs who can contribute this season is the biggest issue on the defensive side of the ball. New faces Mitchell and redshirt freshman Devin Bowman could provide some quality depth, but how ready will the two newcomers be come September? Names like Damian Swann and Blake Sailors will be expected to step into bigger roles this spring. Cornerback is the key concern within this group, but developing sound depth behind star safety Bacarri Rambo and Shawn Williams would be welcomed safety net for secondary coach Scott Lakatos.
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SEC 2012 Schedule Analysis
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