You might have expected Mark Richt to be a little tense this week as he tries to get his floundering team to shake off last week’s second-half collapse and prepare for a Georgia Tech offense that gave the Dogs big problems last year.
But the Richt who dropped by the Touchdown Club of Athens meeting Tuesday night at the Athens Country Club appeared relaxed as he teased UGA color analyst Eric Zeier and recounted how his efforts to recruit Zeier to FSU came to naught.
Richt noted that Zeier has done such a good job of analyzing Georgia in the radio booth that Dogs supporters have been urging him to add Zeier to his coaching staff. In reference to widespread criticism of that staff, Richt cracked: “I said that if I hired him, he wouldn’t be so smart any more.”
Talking about Georgia’s past two games, Richt said he thought the Dogs winning the turnover ratio for the only time this season was the key to beating Auburn. As for the Kentucky game, he said, the first thing he told his team “was to protect the ball.” He said he stressed ball security at halftime of the game against the Wildcats, only to see his team turn it over four times.
Perhaps, he said sarcastically, “I should just say fumble and throw picks all you want and maybe they’ll do the opposite of what I say” again.
More seriously, he said part of the problem with Georgia getting more takeaways has just been the way the ball bounces, with the Dogs getting few chances to cover an opponent’s fumble. “It’s just been one of those years.”
But, he said, “I don’t think the team fell apart” in the second half against Kentucky. “We had a couple of freshmen spit it up. It wasn’t a bunch of guys giving up or quitting. We just found ways to hurt ourselves.”
And he promised the crowd of several hundred Bulldogs fans, “We’re not dead yet.”
On the subject of injuries to Bacarri Rambo and A.J. Green, he noted that Rambo was unable to practice Tuesday and would try again Wednesday. “If he can practice [Wednesday], he’ll be OK to play.” Green, he said, hasn’t been able to practice “but has not been counted out. There’s a little bit of hope that he can play” on Saturday.
Richt was asked by someone in the audience how Georgia having an off year is affecting recruiting. “Are [other programs] trying to steal players from us? Yeah. Are they saying Georgia’s having troubles? Yeah, they’re doing that. But so far no one has decommitted.”
And Richt said he didn’t expect to lose many recruits “because we don’t feed them a bunch of crap. We tell them how it’s going to be. I feel like we’re still in very good shape.” He added that at quarterback he’s sticking with Logan Gray, Zach Mettenberger and Aaron Murray for next year. “We’re not bringing in a freshman [quarterback] in this class, as of right now.” He said Georgia is looking at some potential walk-on QBs “for emergency situations,” but said he did not anticipate signing a junior college quarterback.
Asked about the Dogs’ troubles with kickoffs, Richt said that Blair Walsh has been doing a “stellar” job of kicking off, but “we just haven’t been covering good” this year. That was what led him to try a variety of approaches in the Kentucky game, including squib kicks. He just didn’t think his coverage team was capable of stopping the Cats and “the strategy was to try and disrupt what [Kentucky] was trying to do by doing some different things.”
The result, he said, was “two that were embarrassing, two that were not very good and two that were pretty good.” The squib kick returned to Georgia’s 49 popped up higher than Walsh expected, he said. It was supposed to be more of a line drive.
On the subject of penalties, he said that some of the personal fouls called were “not very smart” but others have just been the result of aggressive play that the Georgia staff thought was legal but the official “didn’t see it that way.” The officials, he said, “are human. They’re gonna call what they see.”
Same with holding calls, like those that have been called on center Ben Jones, he said. “We signed that kid because he’s a mean snake. He goes after it. But if he locks onto a guy and buries him, sometimes they think he’s holding him.”
Richt didn’t directly address the likelihood of any staff changes after this season, but he did pledge to the Touchdown Club: “I’m gonna do anything and everything I can do to get us back on track.”
ZEIER: RICHT IS THE MAN TO FIX THINGS
Speaking after Richt, Zeier said he thinks the Georgia program will be better off for having survived the kind of season it’s had this year. Citing his own career in football, which included time in the NFL, he said, “Challenges like this push you out of your comfort zone. … For the past several years, we’ve had a lot of success and were in a comfort zone. But when that happens, people will catch up to you and pass you before you know it. ”
Zeier thinks the abundance of young talent at UGA is the key to a turnaround. “We are on the verge of some really good things.” He said he’s already seeing the changes wrought by adversity. Over the past three weeks, he said, they’ve changed from a “loose, cocky bunch” to a more determined group.
And, he said, he thinks there’s “no better man for the job” of turning things around than Richt, who Zeier said “has earned the right to take this program where he wants it to go.”
Zeier said his “biggest fear” for this team is that it will buy into the excuses that the loss of players like Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno was responsible for the downturn. “When you allow challenges to become excuses, you have every reason not to win.”
Georgia, he said, has the talent to be an elite program again. “We’re a year or two away from being back at that level. “And we’ve got the right group [of coaches] to do it.”