ATHENS – When Georgia opened spring practice Thursday, there were three quarterbacks in the pool of potential starters, a defense switching its front from a 4-3 to a 3-4 and a coaching staff hoping to figure out how to avoid a repeat of the cartoon-like numbers that provided the ugly background noise in the 2009 season: 105 penalties and a minus-16 in turnover differential.
But here’s a newsflash: Football isn’t always about numbers and alignments. And to what degree the Bulldogs bounce back next season likely won’t even hinge on the starting quarterback as much as it will all of those other things that make a football team successful. Intelligence. Discipline. Resolve. Mental and physical toughness. The willingness to smack somebody in the mouth (legally, of course).
The Dogs lacked an edge last season. It was an edge that they possessed when they won two SEC titles in coach Mark Richt’s first five seasons. This spring is about trying to get that back. When a team gets walloped at Tennessee (again), has consecutive lopsided defeats to Florida (twice) and Alabama and finishes the conference season with a home loss to Kentucky, the issues clearly are bigger than just the quarterback.
This spring is about setting a tone for change. Mark Richt knows that.
“It’s big – it’s very big,” Richt said. “We really feel like we set the tone in our offseason program, our mat drill program. They were ready for today. I told them after practice, I was kind of sad they’re going to spring break now because you tend to lose a little of the mental and physical toughness that you developed in the mat drills. There’s not much you can do about it. But they were ready for a day like today.”
There’s no need to go over all the details of 2009. The Bulldogs are considered one of the top football programs in the country and they finished the season in Shreveport. That sums it up. Richt fired three defensive assistants, including coordinator Willie Martinez. It didn’t take long for the new guy, Todd Grantham, to get the players’ attention. Even Richt smiled when asked about Grantham taking charge in practice.
“We want our coaches to be demanding,” he said.
That starts with Richt. He doesn’t need to melt paint. We just need to know he’s demanding a return to the standard he set when he arrived in 2001, and that the message is getting across. Changing his staff was a needed step in that direction.
There is added significance to this spring. Richt acknowledges it. Athletic director Damon Evans senses it.
“When you’re coming off a season like we had, when you’re not used to that kind of record, you get geared up to get back to what you used to do,” Evans said.
“I think people are curious. But for me, Mark’s proven before that he can take this program to great heights. I have confidence that he’ll do it again. We had a down year, and I know some are asking the question, ‘Can they reverse the tide?’ I feel certain that we can.”
Would it be overstatement to suggest the program is at a crossroads?
“I think so — I don’t think our program is at a crossroads right now,” Evans said. “You’re talking about a guy who’s been here for nine years, a guy who’s done a tremendous job. Any program is going to face some adversity. We faced some adversity and what you do now is you see how you respond.”
Richt wants his players to respond. He wants accountability. He wants them to understand that while kickoff is six months away, the seeds for winning starts now.
“It’s also a good time to prove to the coaches: Should you be in the lineup, should you be playing?” he said. “Who is proving they’re going to be game ready?”
This isn’t about schemes. It’s about attitude. It’s blocking, tackling and knocking people over, the things we used to see in Athens. It’s an edge Richt is trying to get back.
What do you think is the most important issue facing Georgia in the spring? Click here to vote in our poll and check out the current results. (Hint: Quarterbacks are down the list.)