AUGUSTA — On the first night of Mark Richt’s spring speaking tour, the Georgia football coach opened up the floor to the Greater Augusta Bulldog crowd for questions.
The man at the Julian Smith Casino who spoke up first Tuesday night had more of a comment than a query.
“I’m disappointed and saddened by some of our student-athletes taking advantage of their privilege, but I’m also very proud to be part of an alumni and program that lets them know there are consequences for their actions,” the man told Richt.
Richt spoke at the first of 12 tour stops just days after Georgia wrapped up a spring practice that was often overshadowed by suspension news.
Georgia has at least four players facing suspension: safety Bacarri Rambo, linebacker Alec Ogletree, cornerbacks Sanders Commings and Branden Smith. Only Commings’ two-game suspension after a domestic violence arrest has been announced by the school.
“I don’t know if any person ever went through life without messing up,” Richt said. “When a mistake is made, there needs to be a consequence, there needs to be a discipline, there needs to be a learning experience from it. … A lot of people might think you may be losing control of your program because you have a lot of suspensions from the season, but the reality is that’s how you keep control of your team by disciplining your team. If you notice, we’re not going to have any partiality between the kids that walk on or are starting.”
Rambo was appealing his second violation of Georgia’s drug-testing policy, according to his high school coach.
Smith’s bench trial is now scheduled for May 21 in Henry County (Ala.) District Court.
He was charged with possession of marijuana second-degree, a misdemeanor, after a late-night arrest on March 11 on his way to Panama City, Fla., on spring break.
“When all of our secondary is healthy and allowed to play,” Richt said with extra emphasis, “we’re pretty strong there.”
Speaking in Commings’ hometown, Richt said, “Do I love Sanders Commings? Darn right I do. Do I love all of these other guys that have had issues over the years? I sure do.”
Richt told the crowd of about 300 that he recently ran into former Bulldog Dannell Ellerbe, who he said was close to “being gone” from the team after a DUI wreck. He gave him another chance, he graduated and he’s now a linebacker for the Baltimore Ravens.
Richt asked the crowd why they remember Verron Haynes, knowing it’s because he caught the famous “Hobnail Boot” touchdown against Tennessee.
“He got suspended for the first game of that season along with Randy McMichael and a couple of other guys,” Richt said. “Those guys turned it around and they recovered, they learned and grew from it.”
Richt said there were issues when he arrived at Georgia (“You don’t get a job unless there had been some issues”) and he told his staff and the administration “if something happens, we’re going to clean it up, we’re not going to cover it up. When you have that philosophy, people are going to see some of your dirty laundry and it’s embarrassing, quite frankly, and you don’t like it, but if you face the problem down and you take care of it and you discipline it properly and move forward in a positive direction, that’s all we can do.
“…In the meantime, some guys are going to have to step up and play ball in those first couple of games and get after it.”
He said that’s part of the reason why star receiver Malcolm Mitchell is “working at cornerback quite frankly. If we have an issue lining up against Missouri in our first Southeastern Conference game and they got this big, athletic receivers, we’ve got to have some guys that can latch on.
“I don’t want to have a defense that has 10 guys playing their rear ends off and one guy they pick a matchup against a cornerback and pick on him and toss a couple of TD passes and lose the game to them because that, we can’t do it.”
Richt spoke on the topic for about five and a half minutes before telling the crowd: “I guess I went a little longer on that question than I should have.”
Richt addressed other topics Tuesday:
—He told Mitchell again this week that he needs to be ready to play cornerback this season after playing receiver last season, but “any time they go out and throw and catch, I think you should get some reps at receiver because we do want to play you both ways.”
Richt said he also met with the strength staff and nutritionist on Monday morning about “things we might need to do to increase his stamina and his hamstring.”
Mitchell missed G-Day and some games last season due to hamstring issues.
“He’s had a couple of hamstring pulls,” Richt said. “He had one last season and he had one in the spring. You just don’t want to overload him is the big thing. If you do, you don’t get him on either side of the ball.”
—Richt said the coaching staff is “thrilled” to see what incoming freshman John Theus will do at offensive tackle. He said he has a chance to play and even start.
Center David Andrews “really helped himself in the spring game,” Richt said when he played on both teams and went up against both John Jenkins and Kwame Geathers. “I think he played more plays than anybody on the field. He played close to 90 plays in that game. … It would be good for us if he was the guy that ended up becoming the center because I think (Dallas) Lee and (Chris) Burnette would be outstanding guards and (Kolton) Houston really could play guard or tackle.”
Richt said Houston is not certain to be able to play this year after sitting out last year due to an unspecified NCAA issue, but Richt said “we’re confident that he’ll play.”
—Richt went further on Christian LeMay as backup quarterback. “If things go as planned he will more than likely be the second-team quarterback,” Richt said.
Junior Hutson Mason will redshirt if starter Aaron Murray isn’t injured. Freshman Faton Bauta still could be a factor.
—The injury news couldn’t be much better.
“There’s not one guy on the team that has anything that should keep them from being ready in the fall when we start practice,” Richt said. “There may be one guy that may not be full speed by June 1.”
Richt said that one player may be defensive end Sterling Bailey, who is returning from a foot injury.