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Georgia opens practice with eye on polls.


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ATHENS, Ga. (AP) -- Georgia coach Mark Richt and his players spent the end of the 2007 season closely watching the polls.

They say that will change as the focus shifts to 2008 with Monday's first of 15 spring workouts.

The polls and BCS rankings were crucial at the end of last season as Richt lobbied unsuccessfully for a spot in the national championship game. The Bulldogs instead made the best of their Sugar Bowl berth, where a 41-10 rout of Hawaii led to a final No. 2 ranking.

Georgia returns 15 starters, including junior quarterback Matthew Stafford, from the 11-2 team and is expected to be ranked at or near the top of the preseason polls.

Stafford says all that matters is the Bulldogs open the year somewhere near No. 1.

"One, two, three, four, all those end up being about the same," Stafford said. "It doesn't really matter. We know we're going to be up there. That's great news for us. That means we had a great year last year and we've got guys coming back. We know it means something, but it's a whole new year."

The high preseason ranking will bring more attention to the Bulldogs, including Stafford and tailback Knowshon Moreno.

"We don't care," Stafford said. "We know some people are going to talk and say we're going to be up there. We realize it takes work today and in the offseason to make those wins happen. We've got a tough schedule, too, so it's going to be a long drive.

"I think the guys have really stepped up, realizing that with the high ranking comes a lot of responsibility to be on meetings on time and try to help the team as much as we can. That's a good sign instead of guys slacking off and saying 'We're No. 2 and we can do what we want.' It's not that way at all. The feeling around the team is the reason we got to that point is working hard, so we've got to do more of the same."

Richt says his top concern is replacing kicker Brandon Coutu. The favorite is freshman Blair Walsh, who arrives in the summer.

Richt also must replace offensive linemen Fernando Velasco and Chester Adams and wide receiver Sean Bailey.

The defense lost safety Kelin Johnson and defensive end Marcus Howard.

"There are a lot of battles going on, a lot of battles for starting positions, a lot of battles for playing time," Richt said.

"I'm most concerned number one that we don't forget our fundamentals. It's the time of the year where you slow down and teach everyone how to block and tackle safely. It's a time to compete for jobs, time to compete offense versus defense."

Georgia's G-Day spring game is scheduled for April 5 at Sanford Stadium.

After sitting out the 2006 season as a redshirt, Moreno shared time with 2007 senior Thomas Brown in his breakout season. Now another redshirt freshman, Caleb King, is expected to play behind Moreno.

Stafford's top receivers include Mohamed Massaquoi, Kris Durham, Kenneth Harris and Demiko Goodman. Tripp Chandler returns at tight end.

Georgia's practice of rotating players created good depth of experienced players at most defensive positions including the two tackle positions, where Jeff Owens, Corvey Irvin, Geno Atkins and Kade Weston return.

"I thought last year we did a great job of substituting, playing a lot of guys, which kept us healthy and kept us fresh down the stretch," Richt said. "A lot of players played real strong down the stretch, and unless we have a lot of injuries I think we will have that same luxury and that is exciting."

Such luxuries lead to high preseason rankings.

"What we have decided to do is focus on the moment," Richt said. "We can't control where we are voted preseason. We can't control a whole lot of things. We can only control how hard we work in any given mat drill, in any given weight lifting session, and spring practice.

"So we're really trying to break it down to one day, one play, one drill, one moment that we can control. I think that it's just much more healthy to think in terms of little pieces instead of chewing an entire season up."

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