While defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt and a host of new assistants graced the Woodruff practice fields for the first time on Tuesday, it was a number of familiar faces that highlighted Georgia’s first day of spring ball.
Running back Todd Gurley, whose availability remained unclear prior to the opening practice session, was in pads and participated fully despite previous concerns of nagging injuries and accompanying limitations.
Gurley wasn’t the only running back making his return to the backfield, either. Keith Marshall, who tore his ACL just five months ago in a game against Tennessee, was also on the field and taking snaps. He wore a green jersey and did not participate in contact drills, but seeing him on the field was a pleasant surprise. It was initially reported that Marshall would miss the entirety of spring practice.
Injury stuff: TE Jay Rome (foot) probably out for spring practice. Keith Marshall and Justin Scott-Wesley (ACL) definitely out.— Seth Emerson (@SethEmerson) March 5, 2014
Also returning to the field for the first time since tearing his ACL was Malcolm Mitchell. Mitchell, of course, tore his ACL in the 2013 season opener at Clemson.
Meanwhile, offensive coordinator Mike Bobo took a different stance, telling Weiszer that he expected Gurley to practice and that he wanted the star running back to "step up and be a leader."
Despite these differing perspectives, everyone agrees that seeing Gurley on the field is a positive thing—regardless of context. After all, Gurley is the Dawgs’ best offensive playmaker and a legitimate Heisman candidate if healthy.
Similarly, Malcolm Mitchell, who still wore a no-contact jersey, was not an altogether shocking participant on Tuesday. He was, however, a breath of fresh air for a program desperately looking to take strides forward.
Although not causal, Mitchell’s absence directly coincided with Georgia’s fall from national contender to the middle of the SEC East. In 2012, he made a number of big plays as the Bulldogs won the division and pushed Alabama to its brink in the conference championship game. Last year, his season ended with Georgia and Clemson tied 7-7 in the first quarter. Obviously, the remainder of the Dawgs’ 2013 campaign was tumultuous.
If Gurley's contributions on Tuesday were indicative of the team’s potential and Mitchell’s participation was a sign of progress, Marshall’s appearance was a reflection of urgency.
While Marshall is far from fully recovered from the knee injury that left him crumpled on the field at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tenn., his progression is ahead of schedule. In late December, Mike Bobo told Seth Emerson of Macon's Telegraph that there was a chance Marshall could redshirt in 2014:
There's no question you consider redshirting a lot of guys at every position. Not necessarily if they're a freshman. Do what's in the best interests for the team, and what's for the best interests for the individual. That obviously could be a case where we could redshirt somebody because they were injured and not full speed. You don't want to waste a year. But you're not gonna ever make a decision on a kid early in the season or fall camp, game 1 to game 2. I mean it might game 6 or game 7 when you need those guys.
Marshall’s ability to practice this spring bodes well for his plan to play in 2014, but more importantly the return of these three players shows the collective urgency of this Bulldogs team.
Gurley, Mitchell and Marshall all could have sat out on Tuesday. Instead, they were on the field, focused on improving individually and pushing the entire team to a higher level. Needless to say, the three offensive playmakers certainly boast enough credibility to lead by example—even when less than 100 percent healthy.
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While off-the-field incidents may have cast a shadow over Tuesday's return to practice, the participation of these three Bulldogs provided an early highlight.