ATHENS, Georgia — If they gave out an award for the most patient player, Georgia's Hutson Mason would surely be one of the top contenders.
Four years after he signed with the Bulldogs, the quarterback job is finally his.
"You're not really used to being the guy that people come to ask questions or to make important decisions," Mason said. "You feel a little bit more important. To the guys, the coaches, the staff, you're the guy."
Mason was a backup through most of his career, but he got a head-start on his new role late last season when four-year starter Aaron Murray went down with a knee injury.
In the final two games of a disappointing 8-5 season, Mason gave his teammates plenty of reason to be hopeful. He completed 43 of 75 passes for 619 yards, with three touchdowns and two interceptions.
"It's not a freshman coming in. It's not even a sophomore. It's a guy who's been here for so long," receiver Michael Bennett said. "He knows the offense in and out. He's going to make the right decisions."
In addition to a new quarterback, here are five things to watch for when the Bulldogs open the season Aug. 30:
EARLY SCHEDULE: For the second year in a row, Georgia will begin the season with two of its toughest games. The Bulldogs host Clemson in the opener at Sanford Stadium, looking to avenge last season's 38-35 defeat in Death Valley, then travel to South Carolina to take on Steve Spurrier and the Gamecocks. That game usually sets the tone in the SEC East, with the winner gaining an early upper hand in the division race. South Carolina has won 18 straight games at Williams-Brice Stadium, where Georgia's last victory came in 2008. If the Bulldogs win their first two games, they could very well be unbeaten heading into the annual showdown with Florida on Nov. 1.
NEW DEFENSIVE BOSS: Jeremy Pruitt takes over as defensive coordinator for Todd Grantham, who left to join Bobby Petrino's staff at Louisville. Pruitt comes to Georgia after one highly successful season as the coordinator at Florida State, which won the national championship and led the country in fewest points allowed. Under Grantham, the Bulldogs had plenty of talented players — many of whom are now on NFL rosters — but developed a reputation for underachieving. Last year, with a very young group, Georgia surrendered at last 30 points in eight of 13 games.
GURLEY FOR HEISMAN: Todd Gurley just missed his second straight 1,000-yard season, despite missing three-plus games with an ankle injury and not being at full strength when he returned. One of the top priorities of the offseason was making sure Gurley was at full strength heading into his third — and possibly final — season in Athens. As a freshman, he rushed for 1,385 yards and 17 touchdowns. He could very well be one of the top contenders for the Heisman Trophy if he stays healthy.
SHAKY SECONDARY: The Bulldogs were burned through the air in plenty of games last season, most notably when they gave up a 73-yard touchdown on fourth-and-18 with 25 seconds left against Auburn, giving the Tigers an improbable 43-38 victory. Now, they've got to replace three regulars. Richt kicked a pair of safeties, Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews, off the team for violating team rules. Cornerback Shaq Wiggins followed Grantham to Louisville. Damian Swann is the top returnee, J.J. Green moved over from running back, and several newcomers will get a shot at immediate playing time.
MITCHELL'S HEALTH: Malcolm Mitchell went into last season rated as Georgia's top receiver. But he tore up his right knee in the opener and was done for the year, had to cut short spring practice because of a problem with his left knee, then re-injured his right knee just before the start of preseason practice while doing drills. He's had four knee injuries in all, raising doubts about whether he'll ever get healthy enough to make a big contribution. The Bulldogs are still hopeful he can help the offense before his career is done.
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at http://www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963