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Bill King

Preseason concerns about Dawgs shift as injuries mount

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Fullbacks Taylor Maxey (left) and Merritt Hall at one of this preseason's early practices. (Steven Colquitt / UGA)

Fullbacks Taylor Maxey (left) and Merritt Hall at one of this preseason’s early practices. (Steven Colquitt / UGA)

As Mark Richt’s Bulldogs approach the midway point in preseason practices, I decided to take stock of what parts of Georgia’s team have this fan feeling pretty good and what areas have me somewhat concerned.

The concerns actually have shifted a bit from before practice started. Yeah, I’m still taking a wait-and-see attitude on Jeremy Pruitt’s rebuilding project in the secondary as well as the reshuffling of the offensive line. And those still could prove to be the major points on which the Dogs’ early part of the season turns.

But as injuries have mounted and lingered, I’ve become more concerned about the receiving corps. The Dogs’ offense played grind-it-out in the first scrimmage at least in part because of a shortage of folks to throw it to, what with Malcolm Mitchell out for who knows how long and other varying injury problems limiting Chris Conley, Jonathan Rumph and Justin Scott-Wesley, among others.

Yes, the Dogs are loaded at running back — the aspect of the 2014 team that has most of us wearing a big smile — but we saw in the bowl game against Nebraska how the lack of a downfield threat can impact Hutson Mason’s play at QB and the offense’s overall effectiveness.

Now, add to that another new concern: fullback. True, Mike Bobo doesn’t rely on the fullback nearly as much as he used to, what with the increased use of spread plays, but with reliable blocker Merritt Hall sidelined with an undisclosed problem and Quayvon Hicks having moved over to tight end/H-back, we’ve wound up with little-used senior Taylor Maxey getting reps at FB with the No. 1 unit and freshman linebacker Detric Bing-Dukes suddenly being moved over to fullback because the team is too thin there. That has me a bit concerned about blocking for the running game.

As for other question marks concerning this team, I’d file the battle for backup quarterback behind Mason in that wait-and-see category, though from what I saw at G-Day I think frontrunner Faton Batau is probably the most game-ready if not the most talented.

We won’t know how much progress has been made in another big area of concern after last season, special teams, until we see how those units perform in real games, but I’m hopeful that the Dogs finally will have a return game thanks to the arrival of Isaiah McKenzie, who electrified everyone on hand at the scrimmage with a run back for a touchdown, even if the defense might have been in “thud” mode rather than tackling live, as Richt said. If he can hold on to the ball (a challenge for some potential returners in recent seasons), that will give Georgia a threat it’s been missing. The kicking game itself should be in pretty good shape. Now, if they can just keep punts from getting blocked and not give up any long returns.

The good news, of course, is that freshmen Nick Chubb and Sony Michel give the Dogs easily the nation’s best fourth- and fifth string tailbacks! Seriously, I’m expecting to see both of them get onto the field early on in special teams play, which could add yet another return threat for Georgia. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Michel getting some passes out of the backfield as well.

As for Pruitt’s work with the defensive backs, I’ll be pleased if they start out the season merely adequate, which would be a big step up from the disaster that was last year’s secondary under Todd Grantham. I’m encouraged that Pruitt is planning on playing more backs in passing situations (as opposed to Grantham keeping his confused base defense on the field), which should help on third down.

And Mason says he’s seeing more discipline on the defense and more concentration on stripping the ball, which would help with the Dogs’ previously unimpressive turnover ratio.

Those are the pluses and minuses I see so far. What are your thoughts?

A DAY FOR THE FANS

Saturday brings the annual Picture Day in the Reed Plaza area at Sanford Stadium, with the football team, Richt, Uga IX (“Russ”), the cheerleaders and other UGA athletes on hand.

Coupons are required to meet Russ and Richt, and those tickets will be distributed to the first 150 fans at 10 a.m. from the East End ticket windows on East Campus Road. Stadium gates will open at 2 p.m. (enter through Gate 2 across from the Tate Center or Gate 4 off East Campus Road) and the Georgia cheerleaders, Dance Dawgs and Hairy Dawg will be available from 2-6 p.m. Russ and other UGA sports teams will be available 2-4 p.m. Ticket holders to see Russ must be in line by 2:30 p.m. The football team will be on hand for autographs 4-6 p.m., which is also when Richt will be available for those with coupons. You must be in line by 4:30 p.m. to meet the head coach.

No outside items for autographs will be allowed. The athletic association will provide each fan with two free schedule posters, which are the only items that will be signed.

Parking will be open to the general public in all campus lots surrounding the stadium. Handicapped parking will be available in the Tate Center lots.

This Munson bulldog is up for auction. (Suits & Sneakers)

This Munson bulldog is up for auction. (Suits & Sneakers)

Also Saturday, the UGA basketball program’s fifth annual Suits & Sneakers Gala to raise money for cancer research will be held at Stegeman Coliseum, with sportscasters Rece Davis and Brad Nessler and ABC News anchor Amy Robach (a UGA alum) among the special guests. One of the biggest draws will be the auction, which has a wide array of offerings, ranging from a dinner for 10 cooked by celebrity Athens chef Hugh Acheson at Mark and Cindy Fox’s house to a Larry Munson-style stone bulldog!

My friend Sravanthi Meka, who’s involved with the fundraiser, reminds that tickets are still available through Friday. You can get two tickets for $300 here.

Go Dogs!

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Got something you want to discuss concerning UGA athletics? Or a question for the Junkyard Blawg? Email junkyardblawg@gmail.com.

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— Bill King, Junkyard Blawg

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