By Donald Heath, Savannah Morning News
The collegiate football season is more than four months away, but is it ever too early to talk Georgia Bulldog football?
That‚Äôs the point of an 11-city tour throughout the Southeast by Bulldogs coach Mark Richt. One of the first football questions on tour spiraled to Richt at his first stop at the Savannah Golf Club on Wednesday.
Any pressure on you after Georgia finished with a 6-7 record last season?
Richt, of course, is like a politician with an uncanny ability to stay guarded under the guise of casual.
‚ÄúNone, I don‚Äôt feel any pressure. None at all,‚Äù he said.
He shouldn‚Äôt. Few programs have been as successful. For the first nine years under Richt, the Bulldogs averaged 10 wins a season.
But it might be natural to look over one‚Äôs shoulder too. UGA has lost more games every year for the last three years. And in recent years, Richt‚Äôs competition ‚Äî Auburn, Alabama, Florida and LSU ‚Äî have won national championships.
And to some Georgia fans, the only thing worse than playing in the Liberty Bowl last season was losing it to Florida, err Central Florida.
Richt once again prepares for a season of great expectations. Quarterback Aaron Murray, who threw for more than 3,000 yards, is back.
And one of the top recruiting classes in the nation, led by running back Isaiah Crowell, will be added to 15 returning starters.
‚ÄúI think Isaiah and a lot of the guys in the class ‚Äî this class is being touted as something special ‚Äî they have to realize they have to earn everything they get,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúThey have to realize they have to function within our team and within our university like anybody else.
‚ÄúAs much as they have this notoriety about them, they are also regular students. ‚Ä¶ They‚Äôre all going to do what other folks have to do. They‚Äôre all going to need an indoctrination on what‚Äôs about to happen.‚Äù
That indoctrination begins Sept. 3 when the Bulldogs open the season with Boise State. They begin SEC play a week later when they host one of the favorites in the East Division, South Carolina.
‚ÄúI think the biggest challenge is to be at midseason form for our first two games,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúThey‚Äôre big games for us. (The Boise game) will help set the tone for our season. The very next week, South Carolina will be big. Since they‚Äôre one and two, we have to be ready.‚Äù
Not that there‚Äôs any pressure.
All that‚Äôs riding on the Boise game, as Richt said, is ‚Äúto show the college football world we‚Äôre still a pretty good football team.‚Äù
Spring practice ended for the Bulldogs on Saturday. Richt liked what he saw from the veterans.
‚ÄúThe guys worked hard,‚Äù he said. ‚ÄúI thought they competed well. I thought guys improved. We had a few guys get banged up. It would have been nice to see them practice a little more.‚Äù
A big loss was offensive tackle Trinton Sturdivant, who tore his anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and will miss the 2011 season.
Former Emanuel County Institute star Washaun Ealey seemingly has been sharing the doghouse with Uga since being suspended for three weeks for disciplinary reasons.
Ealey led the team with 811 rushing yards and 11 touchdowns last season but with Crowell in the fold, Richt isn‚Äôt making any promises to anyone for starting time.
‚ÄúThat part I don‚Äôt know,‚Äù Richt said about Ealey on the team‚Äôs depth chart. ‚ÄúHe only practiced a couple of days. He started out very well, but then pulled his hamstring. ‚Ä¶ The running back position is wide open.‚Äù
The Bulldogs‚Äô defense is adjusting to a new look as well. Former Dallas Cowboys defensive line coach Todd Grantham is entering his second year as defensive coordinator.
‚ÄúI was looking for a guy who could run the ship,‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúAll my experience in coaching is on the offensive side of the ball. I needed a defensive guy who could run it, who could be the leader of that group. Todd fit that description.
‚ÄúA lot of (collegiate players) dream of playing in the NFL and they realize what he‚Äôs done and where he‚Äôs been and the guys he‚Äôs coached. And they can visualize themselves learning from a guy who absolutely knows what (good defense) looks like and what it takes. (Players) understand he knows what he‚Äôs talking about.‚Äù
Richt could talk all day about Georgia football, even coming off a 6-7 record when all of Bulldog Nation is barking for better days. A supportive crowd came out for Richt on Wednesday.
‚ÄúWhat I‚Äôve learned is I could be talking to (the media) and (fans) can read all they want, but they still want to hear it (at booster gatherings),‚Äù Richt said. ‚ÄúIt‚Äôs OK with me.‚Äù
Georgia basketball coach Mark Fox missed Wednesday‚Äôs extravaganza but coming off the bench was assistant Kwanza Johnson to fill in.
The Bulldogs improved from 14 wins to 21 wins (the most victories since 2002) in Fox‚Äôs second season and advanced to the NCAA Tournament.
But it won‚Äôt easy to duplicate that showing next season because top players Trey Tompkins (16.4 ppg.) and Travis Leslie (14.4 ppg.) won‚Äôt be back.
‚ÄúI don‚Äôt think you replace guys like that right away because they were good players and they had experience,‚Äù Johnson said. ‚ÄúA lot of times experience is hard to replace. We‚Äôll do it by committee. The younger guys will have to step up. ‚Ä¶ The thing about it is. You lose somebody every year and somebody always steps up.‚Äù