- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 20, 2018

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) - It’s been more than two months since that last play.

The one that cost Georgia a national championship.

The Bulldogs are still not over it.

“It’s something I dream about every night,” receiver Terry Godwin said, shaking his head. “One play. We worked so hard and got there, and we came up one play short. That hurt me tremendously.”

At least now, Godwin and his teammates can start looking forward.

Spring practice began Tuesday for a program that suddenly faces enormous expectations, yet also must cope with how its magical run to the title game ended on a nightmarish final play .

In overtime, Alabama’s backup quarterback went deep for the winning touchdown pass, taking advantage of blown coverage to give the Crimson Tide a stunning 26-23 victory over its Southeastern Conference rival.

“We got a little taste of it,” tight end Isaac Nauta said. “We want to get back.”

Coach Kirby Smart isn’t the least bit interested in replaying last season - not all the good things that happened , nor the gut-wrenching way it finished .

Following the example set by his mentor, Smart sounded very much like Alabama’s Nick Saban as he talked about what it will take for the Bulldogs to build a program that can compete for championships every year.

“Change is inevitable, but growth is optional,” Smart said. “Each team is very different. My concern for this team is not understanding that they’re going to be the target for everyone they play. We’re not going to sit back and let people hunt us. We’re going to continue to hunt. We’re an aggressive team. That’s what we want to be. We’re trying to grow as a team and get better.”

The Bulldogs certainly have some enormous shoes to fill, beginning with the dynamic running back duo of Nick Chubb and Sony Michel . They also lost a hefty chunk of the starting defense, including projected first-round NFL draft pick Roquan Smith as well as four-year stalwarts Lorenzo Carter and Davin Bellamy.

But Smart has plenty of replacement talent on the way, landing a recruiting class that was rated by many as the best in the nation.

Amazingly enough, all eyes will be on the quarterback position during spring practice, even though Jake Fromm had a stellar freshman season after taking over as the starter in the very first game when Jacob Eason went down with a knee injury.

Realizing that his starting days were done between the hedges, Eason transferred to Washington. But Georgia’s recruiting class included Justin Fields , a five-star high school quarterback who certainly has no plans to sit on the bench for the next two years.

Fields is more of a dual threat than Fromm, having thrown for more than 4,000 yards and rushed for more than 2,000 yards in his last two prep seasons.

No one is assured of a starting job, according to Smart.

Not even Fromm .

“Everybody can improve,” the coach said. “The fact that Justin and Jake are competing is no different than every guy on our team. We’ve got about four or five spots in the secondary that are wide open for 12 guys. So why should (quarterback) be any different? We’ve got guards and centers and tackles, all competing. None of that changes. That’s what this program is built on. You go out every day and perform to the best of your ability. And if I don’t think, or the staff doesn’t think you’re performing to the best of your ability, then we call you out.”

Having Chubb and Michel in the backfield took much of the load off Fromm. The two backs combined for more 2,500 yards rushing and 31 touchdowns, powering a methodical offense that largely managed to avoid game-changing mistakes.

Fromm will be expected to take on more of a leading role in 2018.

If he doesn’t, Fields could steal away the starting job.

Elsewhere on offense, D’Andre Swift should take over as the No. 1 running back, coming off a freshman season in which he piled up 618 yards while averaging an explosive 7.6 yards per carry. Elijah Holyfield and Brian Herrien also figure to get more carries, though their playing could depend on the health of another top recruit.

Zamir White was one of the nation’s most heralded prep tailbacks, rushing for more than 7,100 yards in his high school career, but a knee injury during his senior year will keep him from taking part in spring practice.

No matter who’s carrying the load this fall, Georgia’s expectations remain the same.

Get back to the championship game.

Only this time, make one more play.


Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at https://apnews.com/search/paul%20newberry


For more AP college football coverage: www.collegefootball.ap.org and www.twitter.com/AP_Top25

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