Life without Aaron Murray and a secondary in transition.

There’s a different feel this season surrounding Georgia, a team picked to finish second behind South Carolina in the SEC’s Eastern Division. Despite an inevitable adjustment period under center and on defense, the Bulldogs remain somewhere in the middle of a 20-team group capable of contending for a spot in the first College Football Playoff.

That’s what Mark Richt is telling his players.

“What’s important is what happens at the end of the year,” Richt said Thursday on the final day of SEC Media Days. “Earlier I got asked that question (about being picked to finish second). I said, I’m not happy to be named number two. I’m not going to start cheering that we’re number two. I think in the end it’s going to be Georgia.”

A healthy Todd Gurley, perhaps the nation’s top running back, puts Richt’s mind at ease even if the power rusher decides on skipping his senior campaign for the 2015 NFL Draft. Gurley’s on the Heisman short list and needs 859 yards to become the program’s second all-time leading rusher behind Herschel Walker.

“Whether Todd stays another year or not, I don’t know, but if he stays healthy, I think he’s one of the better players in America, no doubt about it,” Richt said. “Hopefully he stays healthy. I see that he’s getting into great condition. If we continue to get him in great condition for this season, I think the sky’s the limit for him.”

Gurley’s expected to shoulder most of the offensive load following the exit of a four-year starter under center who left Athens as the SEC’s all-time leading passer. Richt is behind fifth-year quarterback Hutson Mason as Murray’s replacement and says his experience level will help the Bulldogs.

“(Hutson’s) a guy that got to watch Aaron’s work ethic, to see how he ran the off‑season program, how he would organize pass skeleton and those types of things,” Richt said. “Just the fact that Hutson has the respect of his teammates, the confidence of his teammates and coaches, to take on that leadership role.

“Not to say we don’t miss Aaron because we do, but it was time for him to go. That’s just college athletics.”

Richt said Thursday he’s met with Mason several times during his career and reassured him that his chance would come when thoughts of a transfer arose. Richt said the situation is similar to career second-teamer D.J. Shockley stepping in for David Greene in 2005.

Shockley shined in his final season, first as a starter.

“I think the stage is set for (Hutson) to have a tremendous senior year and hopefully have the same success or even better than D.J. had,” Richt said.

First-year defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt has his hands full heading into August, selecting who will start in the secondary beside incumbent corner Damian Swann. Swann’s the lone returning starter on a unit that ranked 11th in the SEC last season in defensive pass efficiency and was decimated during the offseason with several players exits.

Rising sophomore corner Shaq Wiggins transferred to Louisville, Brendan Langley switched to offense and projected impact players Josh Harvey-Clemons and Tray Matthews were kicked off the team.

It appears walk-on Aaron Davis could start at one corner spot alongside Swann. At safety, senior Corey Moore and sophomore Quincy Mager are the only returning players who have started a game.

“Jeremy is going to make sure that whatever gets called in that game that secondary is going to be able to execute,” Richt said. “The other thing, a year ago when he was at Florida State, I think two of his starters were true freshmen in the backfield, so he’s done it before.  He’s not afraid to do that. We feel like we’re going to be just fine.”

More from Richt’s SEC Media Days appearance:

  • On opening at Sanford Stadium against Clemson: “Well, I’m glad to be home. Glad the game is going to be Between the Hedges. Our fans are going to be off the chain, ready for it. I think our players will, coaches will.  Tremendous opponent in Clemson.  Obviously they got us last year. Hopefully we can turn it around and get ’em.”
  • On Georgia’s strict drug policy: “We don’t want our guys to do drugs, okay?  I don’t want my son to do drugs. We’ve got policies that are stronger maybe than some when it comes to the punitive part of it.  That’s kind of what everybody talks about.  Georgia ends up suspending their guys a little bit sooner in the policy, which I’ve got no problems with”
  • On SEC’s lack of star power: “I think the league’s wide open every year obviously. Auburn two seasons ago doesn’t win a conference game. Auburn plays for the national championship. Auburn wins the league. Even the year before, two years ago, Missouri, 2‑6 in league play, they win the East. There were a lot of stars in the league last year.”