ORLANDO, Fla. – Georgia players say the biggest difference is when they’re on the practice field. That’s when they notice Rodney Garner is not there screaming at the top of his lungs. That’s when it’s evident that Big John Jenkins is not out there laughing and joking around with his teammates.
The rest of it, they insist, is business as usual.
As the Bulldogs prepare for Tuesday’s Capital One Bowl matchup with Nebraska, it is becoming increasingly apparent that there is great potential for distraction. Forget the fun and sun of Orlando and its enormous array of amusement parks. Between coaches leaving (Garner to Auburn), players losing eligibility (Jenkins) and others contemplating early entry into the NFL draft (Jarvis Jones, Alec Ogletree and Kwame Geathers), this could be one pack of discombobulated Dogs by the time they kick off against the Cornhuskers on Tuesday at 1 p.m.
“A lot of situations have occurred from the last game to now,” said Jones, a junior who projects as one of the first players selected in the 2013 draft. “It’s just another challenge and we’ve got to be up for it.”
Said linebacker Amarlo Herrera: “It feels different, but you have to take the good with the bad.”
After serving Georgia for 15 years as its defensive line coach, assistant head coach and recruiting coordinator, Garner decided to answer Auburn’s call for help and return to his alma mater one day before Christmas vacation. Gone with him is a magnetic personality and mentoring relationship with more than a few of the players
“It’s different without Coach G here,” Jones said. “Everybody knows how he is. He’s a great guy and he’s a father figure to a lot of us out here. I’m happy for him at the same time; he’s going back to his alma mater. But for us, we’ve just got to focus in and hone in.”
Upon arrival at the bowl site, the Bulldogs learned they would be without Jenkins, a 360-pound second-team All-SEC defensive lineman who piled up 50 tackles as an almost immovable object middle for Georgia.
“We’ve been together so long, guys pretty much know what they’re doing,” Ogletree said. “With Coach G being gone, the D-line has got to go with Coach (Todd) Grantham now. But guys are still willing to work. We know we’ve got to prepare and come out and play hard because Nebraska is a good team.”
Ogletree and Georgia’s other two junior all-stars players have been peppered all month with questions about draft evaluations and declaration deadlines. Meanwhile, nine defensive starters are preparing to play their last collegiate games as matriculated seniors.
“I don’t think we’ll be distracted,” senior cornerback Sanders Commings said. “We want to come out and win this last game. We want to play together one more time as a defense. Even though a couple of big parts aren’t here, our starting noseguard and our D-line coach, we still feel like we’re a great defense and we just want to finish strong.”
The Bulldogs need to be fully focused on containing “Big Red’s” offensive machine.. Led by dual-threat quarterback Taylor Martinez, the Cornhuskers average 462 yards per game. And while they’re primarily known as a rushing team, more than 207 of that has come via the passing game.
“I think Coach Grantham has everything under control along with the rest of the staff,” Georgia coach Mark Richt said. “And I think our guys are going to want to finish in a real positive way, so I’m not worried about that. If there is an issue it’s because Nebraska rushes for 250 yards a game and has a very agile quarterback who’s a great passer as well. So if there are problems it’s not going to be because somebody’s not ready. It’s going to be because they’re pretty darn good on offense.”
Logistics are an issue. With Garner leaving so close to Christmas, the Bulldogs haven’t had time to replace him and don’t plan to until sometime well after the bowl game. So Grantham has brought the defensive linemen into the meeting room with his outside linebackers. Graduate assistants Brandon Wheeling and Mike Kelly have taken over Garner’s role on the field during practices.
“We’ve got good coaches and we’re continuing to work,” Grantham said. “The defensive line and the outside ‘backers work with me and I work with my two GAs on the field to make sure we’re getting as much teaching and individualized attention as we can. And we’ve been working this game plan for a couple of weeks now, so it’s not like you’re trying to get something in. We’re moving forward and everything is going to be fine.”
Herrera, for one, doesn’t expect any regression.
“I’m still confident in this defense,” the sophomore said. “The D-line hasn’t let up. They’re still going hard. We’ve been practicing well. Everybody is on the same page and we’ve been making plays in practice.”
But the true test will come in Tuesday’s game.
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