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Georgia looking ahead, not back

Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley runs through a drill during practice at the University of Georgia on Aug. 1. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

Georgia Bulldogs running back Todd Gurley runs through a drill during practice at the University of Georgia on Aug. 1. (Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports)

Five yards separated Georgia from a chance to play for the BCS title last season.

But last year is last year to Georgia coach Mark Richt. No need to dwell on it. Georgia’s 32-28 loss to Alabama in the SEC title game, which ended with the Bulldogs’ at Alabama’s five-yard line as time expired, was tough to stomach. But it showed the Bulldogs could go toe-to-toe with the eventual national champions.

With starting quarterback Aaron Murray back for his senior year and 1,385-yard running back Todd Gurley returning as a sophomore, there is optimism that the Bulldogs could finally break through in the rough and tumble Southeastern Conference.

“People still want to talk about last year and last year’s SEC Championship Game,” Richt said. “The players know and the coaches know that it’s a new year and it’s a new team. I think they are looking forward to their own identity. They understand they have to have a new identity. We’re not really sure what it’s going to be.”

With Gurley and Murray back, that identity should include plenty of offense. The Bulldogs averaged 37.8 points per game with excellent offensive balance. Of Georgia’s 69 touchdowns last season, 32 came rushing and 37 came through the air. Georgia averaged 285.1 passing yards and 182.6 yards rushing per game.

The question mark this season will come in defense, where the Bulldogs will need to replace eight starters. Of the eight, seven were picked in the NFL draft last April.

“Are they going to grow up fast enough?” Richt said. “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.”

Murray said he’s been impressed with the level of intensity of Georgia’s defense in practice.

“They’ve worked their tails off and had a great spring, got better and better every day in spring and continued to work hard this summer trying to learn the playbook,” Murray said. “I think they look great from what I’ve seen this summer.”

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NCAAF Team Report - Georgia - NOTES, QUOTES

—Georgia coach Mark Richt said he intends to make special teams a priority in 2013. That includes a closer evaluation of the kicking game, the return game and kickoff coverage. Richt told the Atlanta Journal Constitution he met with a couple of coaches over the summer who were “good at teaching kicking” and got pointers on fundamentals to look for. As for the return teams, Richt said he’s not looking for dynamic returns, just ball security. “The most important thing after a return is for us to have the ball when the play is over,” Richt said. “If you remember a couple of years ago we had times where they’d line up to punt and we had a couple of fakes on us. There were some times we fumbled the ball and that type of thing. So that’s problematic. Our main goal was to make sure at the end of the that play we wanted to have the ball on the next down. And so we did a pretty good job of that. There were no fake punts on us and we blocked five kicks last year. So we actually did some very good things.

“Yards per return, dynamic returns for touchdowns, that’s exciting, that’s a game-changing play. But it’s also a game-changing play if they fake a punt on you or if you turn the ball over. I think we’ve got to do a better job of fielding the ball.”

—Georgia QB Aaron Murray said he’s been more disciplined with his diet in an effort to improve his strength and conditioning. “Everything in the weight room went up which is encouraging as well and I haven’t had junk food in about two months” Murray said. “However, I love sour patch watermelons, they’re my weakness but I haven’t had those in forever. I don’t even remember what they taste like which is a good thing. I haven’t had fast food all semester. We did it to improve my physical status I guess so this is the best I’ve felt in four years.”

SPOTLIGHT ON SEPTEMBER: Georgia’s opening month is arguably the toughest in the country. The Bulldogs begin the season Aug. 31 at ACC favorite Clemson in a game that’s already been picked at ESPN CollegeGameDay’s first site of the season. Then, on Sept. 7, Georgia plays its home opener and SEC opener against a South Carolina team that’s won three straight against the Bulldogs. After a bye on Sept. 14, Georgia gets a reprieve with a Sept. 21 home game against North Texas. But on Sept. 28, Georgia hosts LSU in its third preseason Top 25 matchup in 29 days. Two of those games are at home, but Georgia’s high-powered offense will need to be at its best while its young defense develops through some early growing pains.

KEYS TO SUCCESS: Georgia has enough firepower on offense to scare even the stingiest of SEC defenses. The Bulldogs must continue to run a balanced offense, mixing experienced QB Aaron Murray and the passing game with the running of sophomore RBs Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall. Defensively, Georgia’s young secondary must avoid giving up big plays. Generating a strong pass rush would help cover up some of the secondary’s weaknesses.

AREAS OF CONCERN: With just three starters back on defense, Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham has his work cut out for him. The Bulldogs need some younger highly-touted reserves from last season to step up, such as five-star DE Ray Drew and five-star S Josh Harvey-Clemons. On special teams, kick coverage has traditionally been a problem at Georgia under Mark Richt. The Bulldogs must tighten up covering both punts and kickoffs to avoid momentum-changing plays (like Ace Sanders’ 70-yard punt return for a TD last season in South Carolina’s 31-3 win over the Bulldogs) from happening in the future.

QUOTE TO NOTE: “This is probably the best offseason we’ve had in my time here so I think physically we’re just ready to go. We’re young in some areas but nothing we can’t make up for with practice and hard work.” Georgia senior TE Arthur Lynch, on the Bulldogs heading into 2013 fall camp.

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NCAAF Team Report - Georgia - STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

HEAD COACH: Mark Richt, 13th year at Georgia, 118-40 record at Georgia and as a head coach.

MOST IMPORTANT PLAYER: QB Aaron Murray — You could substitute running back Todd Gurley for Murray, but as a fifth-year senior, Murray will provide leadership to a balanced offense. Murray’s 95 career TD passes are the most in school history and his 64.5 completion percentage in 2012 was the best in his career.

BREAKOUT STAR: LB Jordan Jenkins — Jenkins played behind departed standout OLB Jarvis Jones last season, and still wound up with five sacks and eight tackles for loss as a true freshman. With Jones gone to the Pittsburgh Steelers as a first-round NFL draft pick, Jenkins will get a chance to fill his role as an impact pass rusher in Georgia defensive coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 scheme.

NEWCOMER TO WATCH: S Tray Matthews — A true freshman who enrolled early in January, Matthews was named the most improved player on defense at the end of spring drills. Matthews has the chance to win the starting free safety job vacated by the loss of Bacarri Rambo. At 6-foot-1, 195 pounds, Matthews is quick enough in coverage and strong enough to lay hits on receivers going over the middle.