Bulldogs hit practice field seeking answers

Georgia’s football team will open practice Tuesday without having to answer any questions about the pressures of a preseason No. 1 ranking. That would be so . . . last year.

But these Bulldogs, with external expectations subdued because of the departure to the NFL of Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno, face an array of glaring new questions.

Here are five to be sorted out on the practice field between now and the Sept. 5 opener at Oklahoma State:

1. Who’ll win the tailback job?

Caleb King, once a celebrated recruit out of Gwinnett County, enters his third season in the Georgia program and gets his first shot at a starting job. Redshirted in 2007 and used sparingly as Moreno’s backup last season, King starts camp No. 1 on the tailback depth chart.

That’s not insignificant, but he will have to fend off competition from three teammates who weren’t in the mix during spring practice: Richard Samuel and Dontavious Jackson, both of whom were injured, and Washaun Ealey, who was still in high school. Plus, 5-foot-7 Carlton Thomas showed in the spring that he intends to command playing time, too.

Who becomes the starter for the opening game -- and the pecking order behind him -- will be decided on the practice field this month.

“If it’s one guy carrying the load, I’m fine with that; if it’s three guys sharing it, I’m OK with that, too,” coach Mark Richt said. “But we’re gonna run the ball.”

2. Who, if anyone, will step up at defensive end?

The position was an injury-ravaged and unproductive mess last season, and little has happened since to brighten the picture. Justin Houston had a big spring, then was suspended from the first two games for violating team rules. Demarcus Dobbs was having a good spring, too, then broke his foot.

Georgia clearly must get more pass rush from the ends and will be looking for take-charge preseasons from senior Rod Battle (back from shoulder surgery) and junior Dobbs (back from foot surgery). Asked if he can be difference-maker, Battle said: “Of course I would like to say that, but I need to go out and work hard and actually make it happen.”

Others in the mix: Kiante Tripp, who returned to defensive end from the offensive line in the spring; Cornelius Washington, a redshirt freshman who missed the spring with injuries; and Montez Robinson, an incoming freshman who was rated the No. 1 prospect at the position in Indiana.

“Defensive ends, I feel like they’re hungry,” Richt said. “They feel like they’ve got something to prove.”

3. Who’ll complement A.J. Green at receiver?

Part of the answer is fifth-year senior Michael Moore, who quietly caught 29 balls for 451 yards in the shadows of Green and Mohamed Massaquoi last season. But with the loss of Massaquoi and two other seniors to graduation and Kris Durham to shoulder surgery, Georgia must rebuild the receiver rotation behind Green and Moore.

It’s an important preseason for Tavarres King, redshirted as a freshman last year after a September ankle injury, and Israel Troupe, used sparingly last year after a redshirt season in 2007.

“I’ve got a long way to go, but I feel more comfortable,” King said. “The speed of the game has slowed down for me.”

Wide receiver is a position conducive to immediate playing time, and expectations for incoming freshmen Marlon Brown, Rantavious Wooten and Orson Charles (also a tight end) are elevated because of Green’s extraordinary success last year.

4. Who’ll kick off?

Georgia struggled badly with kickoffs last season -- a deficiency that often compromised the defense’s field position. At one point, Richt said he might have to look as far as Poland for a kickoff specialist. Turned out, he found one in southern California.

Brandon Bogotay, a San Diego native who kicked last season at an El Cajon, Calif., junior college, signed with Georgia and will battle incumbent Blair Walsh for the kickoff job. Georgia signed Bogotay based entirely on what it saw of him on film, an unusual step that underscored a degree of desperation.

Richt says he remains confident in Walsh’s handling of field goals and extra points and says that whoever wins the kickoff job, “I know the competition will make us much better.”

5. Can the team tackle its injury problem?

You’ve heard ad infinitum about last year’s injury epidemic and the myriad ways it affected the season, including causing the coaches to back off on full-speed tackling at practice.

This preseason opens with most of the major injuries healed and such key players as defensive tackle Jeff Owens and offensive linemen Trinton Sturdivant and Vince Vance back on the field. Now, the question is whether the Bulldogs can stay reasonably healthy while, as Richt put it, “practicing the way you got to practice.”

Improving tackling and reducing penalties will be preseason practice priorities. And while injuries inevitably will occur, last year’s quantity and severity surely won’t be repeated. Right?