After tumultuous offseason, champion Dawgs get back to work

Updated: August 4, 2003, 8:34 PM ET

ATHENS, Ga. -- The Georgia Bulldogs didn't get much chance to enjoy their first football title in 20 years.

Nine players were caught up in an embarrassing scheme to sell their Southeastern Conference championship rings. Five others were suspended after being caught with marijuana in a dorm room. Offensive coordinator Neil Callaway was arrested for drunken driving.

"It seemed like we had just won it, and all this other stuff was going on," defensive lineman Ken Veal said.

As preseason practice opened Monday, the Bulldogs insisted that all the turmoil was behind them. Coach Mark Richt met with his players during the summer, giving everyone a chance to talk about the problems and soothe any hard feelings.

"We got together as a team and hashed it out," Richt said. "We talked about a lot of things. It was a very good meeting. I felt like when it was over, we were all very unified and focused on what we had to do as a team to compete again for a championship."

The Bulldogs, who open the season Aug. 30 at Clemson, also have a bunch of good memories as they return to the field. Last season, Georgia won a school-record 13 games and its first SEC title since 1982. A Sugar Bowl victory over Florida State locked up a No. 3 ranking in the final polls.

Can the Bulldogs duplicate their magical season?

Actually, they'd like to do better.

"We've not won a national championship in 23 years," Veal said. "I want to get that done before I leave."

Georgia will be short-handed early in the season, giving some of the freshmen a chance to make an immediate impact.

Starting cornerback Tim Jennings was among those suspended for the first two games after the drug arrests. In addition, four other players will miss the opener after being suspended by Richt for violating team rules.

"We're going to find out quick who's the closest to being ready to play," Richt said.

Much of the preseason attention will be turned toward the offensive line, which lost its top six players from the championship team. Jon Stinchcomb, Kevin Breedlove, George Foster, Kareem Marshall, Alex Jackson and Ian Knight had combined for 160 starts in their careers. The projected starters going into this season have totaled only four starts.

Tackle Max Jean-Gilles, center Russ Tanner and guards Josh Brock and Bartley Miller are sophomores. Tackle Daniel Inman is a freshman. Compounding Richt's worries, is a lack of depth.

"We have one center who knows what to do," the coach said. "We've got to learn to get out of the huddle right now. We've got a long ways to go.

"As long as we spoon-feed them the defense, it will probably make sense to them. But as soon as those defenses are twisting and spinning and blitzing, their heads are going to be spinning."

Brock made three starts last season, Jean-Gilles one. But all the sophomores on the line got valuable playing experience in backup roles.

"That's really going to help us for this year," Jean-Gilles said. "We know what the games are like. We know what the crowds are like."

The other key position going into fall is tailback. Musa Smith, the school's first 1,000-yard rusher in a decade, gave up his senior season to enter the NFL draft. Tony Milton is the projected starter, but the 5-foot-10, 200-pound sophomore has to show he can handle the pounding of a regular job.

Michael Cooper, Ronnie Powell and maybe even freshman Kregg Lumpkin will push Milton for playing time.

"I hope Tony can step up," quarterback David Greene said. "He's got to be durable and make sure he stays healthy."

This story is from ESPN.com's automated news wire. Wire index

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