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Thursday's practice notes

ATHENS, Ga. – Georgia’s team strapped on shoulder pads Thursday and was able to conduct some "spirited" -- in Mark Richt's words -- 11-on-11 work because of it.

Brandon Boykin on UGA's defense: "Everything is more fluid, and it showed."

On the defensive side of the football, one thing was immediately apparent.

“We’re already farther ahead than we ever were last season,” linebacker Christian Robinson said.

The Bulldogs, of course, are now entering a second season in coordinator Todd Grantham’s 3-4 defense, which was just being installed this time last year.

Clearly, the comfort level has been raised significantly.

“They are playing faster,” Richt said after practice Thursday. “They’re playing with a little bit more certainty as to what they’re doing, so they’re able to turn it loose a little bit more. … I don’t know if we ever really turned it loose as a group (last season). There were certain moments at a time where you thought they were getting it, but as an entire unit, I don’t think we ever really played as fast as we hope we will this year. I think we’ll be better.”

Cornerback Brandon Boykin called the difference “night and day.”

“It’s just people knowing what to do, being comfortable and having experience,” Boykin said. “We’ve got so many people back in the secondary, we know where everybody is going to be and what people’s tendencies are and how they play. So everything is more fluid, and it showed today. We were able to get a lot more interceptions and pass break-ups on just the third day.”

Robinson said he could feel the improvements during 7-on-7 work prior to the start of spring practice.

DeAngelo Tyson talks with nose tackle Kwame Geathers (99) during a spring drill. Geathers says he's up to 344 by adding muscle this offseason.

“It makes it so much easier to go out there every day and just be on the same page,” Robinson said. “Now we’re just working on those little things, getting your feet in the right position, making those picks. Our defense right now as a whole is just so much farther ahead, it makes it easier to go out there each day and not worry about having the mental load we had last season.”

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BIG KWAME: Sophomore nose tackle Kwame Geathers says he’s up to 344 pounds (from a listed weight of 325 prior to the Liberty Bowl), but there is a big difference now as opposed to then.

“I gained some weight, but my body fat went down,” Geathers said. “I think it’s all basically muscle weight. I don’t think it’s all fat weight. The program, I buy into it. I worked out every day with Coach T. He’s still working me out to try to keep me in shape.”

Geathers is currently UGA’s first-string nose tackle, but one wonders how long that might last.

Heralded JUCO signee John Jenkins is due in the fall and expected to contribute immediately on the Bulldogs’ defensive front.

“Actually, I didn’t pay attention to that much,” Geathers said of Jenkins’ signing. “It didn’t bother me at all. I just heard they had a JUCO guy coming in at nose tackle. I was just like, ‘OK. This is a competitive sport.’ I came in thinking the same thing. I just want to play football.”

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PUNT RETURNS: Branden Smith, Tavarres King, Carlton Thomas and Boykin took turns fielding punts during the early portion of practice Thursday.

While Smith – when healthy – held that role last season, Boykin said assistant coach Bryan McClendon has made it clear the job of punt returner is up for grabs in 2011.

“If they want me to return punts, I’m definitely up for it,” said Boykin, a record-setting kickoff return man during his UGA career. “Any time I can get the ball in my hands, you know I’m going to say yes to it.”

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OUT OF ACTION: Sophomore reserve guard Dallas Lee was held out of drills Thursday with what Richt called an “Asthma-like condition.”

“He’s not banged up,” Richt said. “It’s just a breathing issue. I don’t know if it’s technically Asthma or not.”

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RETURN TO ACTION: Sophomore Chris Burnette, meanwhile, is running as the second-string center on the offensive line this spring after recovering from a dislocated kneecap that prematurely ended his 2010 season.

“Burnette has actually lined up and practiced these three days and has shown some promise,” Richt said. “He was kind of banged up all last year.”

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STILL IN TOWN: A.J. Green and Justin Houston, still hanging around Athens after Tuesday’s Pro Day, attending Thursday’s practice. Also on the sideline was former Bulldogs receiver Fred Gibson.

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NEXT UP: The Bulldogs will be in full pads for Saturday’s practice, though it won’t be a full scrimmage, Richt said. Saturday marks Junior Day weekend, leaving UGA coaches to try to juggle time between practice and recruiting duties.

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