ATHENS — Georgia’s Keith Marshall could possibly take a medical redshirt and sit out this coming season. In fact, at one point it seemed like the best option. But the junior tailback appears to be doing everything in his power to see that doesn’t happen.
The Bulldogs’ had a full-contact practice on Tuesday — their third in a row this spring — and there was Marshall dressed out in full pads. No, he didn’t get tackled or participate in competitive drills. But just the fact that he was running plays in full gear barely four months after being in wheelchair following double knee surgeries speaks volumes about the rehabilitation timeline he has established for himself.
“He’s definitely a lot further along than I expected him,” running backs coach Bryan McClendon said after Tuesday’s practice, the Bulldogs’ eighth of the spring. “But, I mean, Keith is one of those hard workers who’s going to go out and try to beat deadlines and he likes to compete. So right now he’s competing against what they said he was going to be out for, and right now he’s winning.”
One would think that Marshall would be happy just to be walking around at this juncture. The 5-foot-11, 219-pound former 5-star prospect out of Raleigh suffered a devastating knee injury on Oct. 5 at Tennessee when his legs were taken out from under him on a low hit by a defensive back as he tried to haul in a pass in the flat. Marshall was unable to undergo an ACL reconstruction on his right knee until Nov. 12. Simultaneously he got some work done on his left knee, which left him in a wheelchair for a short while.
When the Bulldogs entered into off-season workouts in mid-January, the thinking was that Marshall might not be back to full speed by the time Georgia opens the season Aug. 30 against Clemson. It probably played a part in the Bulldogs being able to land not one but two more 5-star signees at tailback in Nick Chubb of Cedartown and Sony Michel of Ft. Lauderdale. With Heisman Trophy candidate Todd Gurley and rising sophomore Brendan Douglas already in the fold, Georgia has the depth to not risk it.
And, of course, Marshall is a talent in his own right. Sharing the workload with Gurley, he has managed 1,005 yards rushing and 9 touchdowns in 19 games the last two seasons It might not be bad to separate him and Gurley from being in the same class. But that’s never been part of plan, McClendon said.
“Right now the plan is to see how far along he is, and then do what’s going to be best for him,” he said. “That’s priority number on. We’re going to do what’s best for him. That way everybody will be able to sleep good at night.”
But McClendon admits he didn’t expect to have Marshall going through drills with him at this point.
“He’s doing a good job of staying on top of things and coming in here and getting treated at least twice a day and then trying to constantly push what he does in practice,” McClendon said. “I’ve got to scale him back a lot and tell him ‘hey, don’t do that.’ But I’m very pleased with how he’s been. Obviously, you’ve just got to make sure that he knows when to say when. That’s what I’m talking to him about, staying between doing enough and doing too much.”
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs are also getting more out of Gurley this spring than was originally expected. While his carries have been limited in competitive situations, Gurley has been on field for every minute of every practice so far.
“You’ve still got to earn what you get,” McClendon said. “That’s one of the biggest things I’ve been pleased about with Todd. He’s not sitting back and waiting. He knows how I operate and how we operate here, which is to make sure that everybody’s at their best. And the only way to be at your best is to practice that way and invest today into what you want to get during the season. I think they’re all doing that and I’ve been very pleased with them as far as that goes.”
Looking for guards
Offensive line coach Will Friend has been very happy with what he’s seeing from his current starting tackles, John Theus on the left and Kolton Houston on the right. But he can’t say the same with the guards.
“Nobody’s stepped up and said they want to be the (starting) guard yet,” Friend said Tuesday. “Greg Pyke has had a good spring and I think he’ll get better as we go through it. But we’re not performing the way we need to inside right now.”
Friend has plenty of candidates to work with. The spring began with sophomores Brandon Kublanow and Greg Pyke competing at right guard and Mark Beard, Hunter Long and Josh Cardiello competing on the left. Since then, Kublanow got sick with the flu and then suffered a hyper-extended elbow. Zach DeBell has moved inside to left guard from left tackle and is now working with the No. 1 offense. Beard moved back outside to tackle to back up Theus and Friend keeps mixing and matching to find the right combination.
“We’re just trying to get some help inside,” Friend said. “We’re not where we want to be at guard now. We’ve got to get better there.”
Georgia has another option in backup right tackle Watts Dantzler, who has worked extensively at guard in the past. But he’s currently sidelined with a concussion.
The guards have a tough act to follow in Chris Burnette and Dallas Lee, which is part of the problem, Friend said.
“Chris and Dallas were so smart,” he said. “They were intelligent guys and they knew what we were trying to do. … We like to get ourselves into the best play and to do that you’ve got to be able to change plays. They did a good job of being able to change in a hurry and getting into plays that could help us. New guys, guys who haven’t played as much, we’re kind of struggling with that and we’ve got to pick that up.”
Once again, Ray Drew is having to battle through a position change. After coming to Georgia as an outside linebacker prospect, Drew adjusted to the move to defensive end and responded with 43 tackles and six sacks in seven starts as a junior last season.
Under new defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and defensive line coach Tracy Rocker, Drew has found himself moving further inside to a tackle position. As a result, he dropped to third on the depth chart last week.
“The players have a pretty good idea who each other is. But the coaches are trying to figure out what’s going to work best with their system and what their expectations are,” Drew said. “They’ve already made the statement that things are going to change again this upcoming week. There might be a different depth chart. Up until we kick off against Clemson I don’t think anybody’s secure in a job. We’re just rolling with it.”
Drew’s not the only one dealing with such changes. James DeLoach and Josh Dawson have moved to defensive end positions after playing outside linebacker last season. DeLoach was considered one of the stars of this past Saturday’s scrimmage and is now working with the No. 1 unit.
Rocker likes Drew’s attitude and believes it’s going to serve him well.
“The first week he was with the ones and we moved him down,” Rocker said. “He had a good scrimmage this week and he’s back with the 2s. It’s all about doing what we ask you to do and playing full speed. We’re trying him inside and I think we’re getting a better effort out of him now. We’re trying to get the max out of him. A lot of time in this biz we get caught up in the name defensive end or outside linebacker. But it’s about do you want to play and win. He’s having some success now playing the 3-technique and hopefully he can keep improving.”
Rocker said the defensive linemen who have done best so far this spring are Mike Thornton, Chris Mayes and Sterling Bailey.
Seen & heard
Tight end Jordan Davis was sidelined Tuesday with a left-knee sprain, leaving converted fullback Quayvon Hicks as the only scholarship player at that position. The Bulldogs utilized tackle Aulden Bynum there some during practice. … There appeared to be some movement on the depth chart for the defensive backfield after Saturday’s scrimmage. Safety Tray Matthews and cornerback Devin Bowman were working with the first-team defense. Also, for the short observation period provided for media Tuesday, sophomore cornerback Brendan Langley was working with the safeties. … The new Field Turf on the lower fields at Woodruff Practice Fields were almost completely installed at the end of the day Tuesday.