Georgia enters a put-up-or-shut-up season without its best holdover tailback. Had not the Bulldogs signed Isaiah Crowell, Washaun Ealey would constitute a major loss. But they did, and now skeptics have suggested Mark Richt might have been less inclined to let Ealey leave had Crowell not been inbound.
And here’s where I take up for Richt — you’ll have to excuse me if I wheeze; I’ve gotten out of practice — and say: Don’t think so.
I also say: Remember Zach Mettenberger.
There have been times when Richt’s famous patience seemed unending. (We think of Odell Thurman, the gifted-but-erring linebacker.) There have been years where Georgia’s arrest total approached — and last year even surpassed — double figures. We add those together to reach the obvious conclusion: Richt is too easy on his players.
But we’ve seen signs that Mr. Softee is casting a colder eye. Maybe this is a response to the direction of his program, which last season achieved the double whammy of off-the-field embarrassment and an on-field losing record. Maybe it’s just the weariness of a coach in his 11th season who’s sick of hearing excuses. Whatever the cause, I don’t believe it’s a triumph of pragmatism over altruism.
Richt had every reason to have tired of Washaun Ealey, whom he’d suspended twice. And I could be naive, but I don’t think Ealey’s departure hinged on Crowell’s arrival. Does it help that Georgia has a new tailback ready to take over? Uh, yes. But sometimes even the famous Richt forbearance reaches its limit.
Let’s recall Mettenberger, who got himself arrested in South Georgia on spring break 2010. Mettenberger was allowed to play in the subsequent G-Day game and was the best of the three quarterbacks on display, but Richt wound up booting him off the team. (It has been suggested that Richt was pushed by Damon Evans, the AD who would himself be jettisoned after his midnight ride in Buckhead. Still, Richt runs the football program, does he not?)
This left Georgia with two scholarship quarterbacks, neither of whom had played a college down. Had the redshirt Aaron Murray gotten injured last season, Georgia had only the true freshman Hutson Mason as backup. (Logan Gray had been moved to receiver.) Losing Mettenberger could have hurt the Bulldogs in 2010, and there’s a chance it could hurt in the future: He’s now at LSU, which could meet Georgia for the SEC title down the road.
The hope when a program signs a player is that he’ll fit athletically and otherwise. The reality is that not every signee pans out on both fronts. It’s a bit heartless to dump a guy if he’s not quite good enough to play for you: That’s not really his fault. If he fails to conduct himself in the way expected of a student-athlete, that’s something else.
Let’s not paint Richt as some scheming puppet-master. He gave Washaun Ealey repeated chances, and apparently Ealey didn’t seize them. This wouldn’t seem a case of Georgia freeing up a position — even if Ealey hadn’t started, he’d surely have been the No. 2 tailback — but of a coach cutting his losses. Had Richt done more of this sooner, he’d have spared himself much grief.
By Mark Bradley