ATHENS, Ga. — Mark Richt knows Georgia fans will be eager to see freshman tailbacks Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall when the No. 6 Bulldogs open their season against Buffalo on Saturday.
The coach promises fans will get their wish.
Gurley and Marshall, who signed from North Carolina high schools, are two of the biggest names in Georgia’s 2012 freshman class. Another top freshman, John Theus, will start at right tackle and protect quarterback Aaron Murray.
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The freshmen will play behind sophomore Ken Malcome, who has revived his career after quitting the team for one day last year because he didn’t think he would play. Malcome will have to hold off the talented freshmen to keep the job.
“I think everybody wants to see them run the ball out there between the hedges when it counts in a real ballgame,” Richt said of Gurley and Marshall. “There’s no doubt they’ll get in the game.”
Many freshmen running backs struggle with pass-blocking, a skill few had to learn in high school. Richt said that will be a key for Gurley (6-1, 218) and Marshall (5-11, 216).
Murray, a junior who set a school record with 35 touchdown passes last season, is a big reason Georgia is expected to contend for a return trip to the Southeastern Conference championship game.
The Bulldogs won 10 games last season but have had a long offseason to remember losses to LSU in the SEC championship game and to Michigan State in the Outback Bowl.
Defensive tackle John Jenkins said the Bulldogs are motivated to take care of unfinished business.
“Yes, anybody who has been through a season like that, what happened with LSU, if you don’t feel that way then you’re not a competitor,” Jenkins said. “With us having that type of season, the good things and ending with the bad things, losing the SEC championship and the bowl game, I feel like we have a lot of unfinished business. But we want to take it one game at a time.”
Buffalo, from the Mid-American Conference, is coming off a 3-9 season that included a 41-10 loss at Tennessee. The Bulls have never beaten an SEC team.
“Really, we’ve got nothing to lose,” said Jeff Quinn, who is beginning his third season as Buffalo’s coach.
“We go down for the national exposure to play against a great team like Georgia. We know our focus is on this one particular game but also there are 11 other games. We’re always talking to our kids about competing for the Mid-American Conference championship. This opportunity to play a great-caliber team like Georgia is going to give us some insight on where we’re at, and also to be able to see some of our depth.”
Buffalo is led by running back Branden Oliver, a junior who set a school record with 1,395 yards rushing in 2011. The Bulls’ top linebacker, Khalil Mack, is suspended for one game for a violation of team rules.
“No question it hurts us,” Quinn said. “He’s one of our best players. But we’ve got to continue to move forward. We’ve got other guys like Willie Mosely and Ken Roberson. They’ve got to step up. It’s a great lesson our kids have to understand. When there’s a guy who gets hurt or is not able to compete in a game other kids have to be able to step up.”
Georgia’s depth on defense also will be tested by suspensions. Starting cornerback Sanders Commings and backup outside linebacker Chase Vasser will miss two games following offseason arrests.
Richt has not confirmed reports that safety Bacarri Rambo and linebacker Alec Ogletree also will be suspended.
Even with the suspensions, defense is Georgia’s strength. Rambo and outside linebacker Jarvis Jones, who led the SEC with 13 1/2 sacks, were first-team All-America picks.
Georgia ranked fifth in the nation in total defense, and 23rd in scoring defense, while winning the SEC East. Nine starters return, but suspensions could cut heavily into that total.
“This defense can be one of the best in the country,” said linebacker Michael Gilliard. “I’m not just saying that just because these are my teammates. With the scheme and the great coaches we have and the great players, we could definitely do some things this year.”
A new name on defense will be cornerback Malcolm Mitchell, who was one of the team’s top receivers as a freshman. Mitchell moved to defense in the spring to fill in for Commings and is expected to play on offense, defense and special teams as a return specialist on Saturday.
“How much offense he plays will be interesting to see,” Richt said. “We’ll see how the game progresses and see how he feels as we go, but we have a plan to use him in all areas.”