ATHENS, Ga. --- As spring practice nears, head coach Mark Richt, defensive coordinator Todd Grantham and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo have shifted their focus from recruiting to preparing for the spring game and the offseason.
“We covered every coach’s top three objectives in a staff meeting, " said Richt. "They have objectives they write out in detail and I get those as well. The things I’m most concerned about, as head coach, are firstly, that we make sure fundamentally we’re teaching the game of football to them. In regard to safety, I want to make sure these guys really, truly understand how to tackle properly, how to run the ball properly and how to make contact properly. We’ve just got to teach the fundamentals in general. It’s a great time of the year to work on fundamentals."
"Secondly, I want to see competition," continued Richt. "I want to see competition at everybody’s position, I want everybody to prove they can play for Georgia and that they deserve to start or they deserve to have playing time. I want to see competition with the offense versus defense. Every drill we run against each other, I want a winner and a loser and I want to see guys want to win. Lastly, we’ve got to continue to build our team concept because being unified as a team is just such a crucial part of winning. As much as we’re going to compete against each other and get after each other, when practice is over, we’re on the same team. As a part of some of that building of the team concept, we’ll find our leaders. I want our players to take ownership like last year’s group did. If I had to narrow it down to three things to work on in spring practice, the main things would be: fundamentals, competition and continuing to build team concept.”
Though the offense has a lot of experience returning, Richt knows there is still work to be done.
“I think an offensive line is much harder to gel, so to speak," said Richt. "All five of those guys have to start doing things right or you’ve got nothing, where defensively, you might have two of four do a great job and be able to blow up a play. I don’t know if it will take quite as long for the defensive guys to get to the point where they can really compete well. From experience, the offensive line is going to have more experience than the defense. So, I think that will bode well for the offensive skill players towards at least giving them a chance. A year ago, that first week, started out so poorly. To their credit, they got better every day, and they knew they had to. By the spring game, they had a pretty good performance and throughout the year we started breaking some school records offensively.”
The depth at the quarterback position is something the coaches are looking at and using to develop a plan for the season.
“It’s going to be interesting," said Bobo. "We had a little agility the other day where I had my group and there’s a line of seven when you count the two walk-ons in Greg Bingham and Parker Welch. I’m going to have to be creative in how we get them reps because we’ve got some experience in Aaron Murray and Hutson Mason and even Parker Welch, but at the same time you don’t want to think they’ve got it down and not work them. You’ve got to make sure they get work and still bring along the young guys and create some depth there. It’s a situation that we’re going to have to work through, make sure that we get all these guys good quality work and find out who can get ready to play and who can help us in the fall."
One of Bobo's goals in the offseason is to build depth at the running back position.
"That’s one goal this spring is to get some depth there," said Bobo. We're going to try J.J. Green out there as a scat back type of guy and then I’ve mentioned before that Tramel Terry is a guy that could dual-train from receiver to running back. There are also some guys that we'd like to build depth with that aren't here yet. It’s going to be a touchy situation here in spring ball, we like to compete in practice but we can’t let our competitive juices get too much where we want to win every drill and wear Todd Gurley out at the same time so we’ve got to be smart about it as coaches. We’ve still got to get work out of them too so it’s a fine line."
With Zander Ogletree ending his career due to a medical issue, there will be some competition at the fullback spot this spring.
"That’s going to be open competition," said Bobo. "Obviously Merritt (Hall) has proven himself, played well in games last year and was really the starter until he had an injury in the Florida game and it just took him a while to get back from that severely sprained ankle and Zander (Ogletree) had established himself. Merritt Hall has beaten him out last year and by no means do I think he thinks the position’s going to be handed to him, he’s going to have to go to work as well as Quayvon (Hicks)."
While the defense has a wave of new players, Richt feels they may have more depth than last year's defense.
“We think we might be able to create more depth than we had a year ago, if guys step up," Richt said. "We’ve got guys like Ray Drew, Sterling Bailey and Mike Thornton who are waiting for an opportunity. We’ve got some young players who are going to get their opportunities to show that they can play the game. If all these guys come through for us up front, even though we lost some very good defensive linemen, we might even have more depth if we have a bunch of guys that can all prove they’re ready to play. So instead of one guy playing 50 or 60 snaps, we can have a couple of guys playing 30 apiece and maybe be as effective or even more effective. We’re looking forward to seeing that all throughout the defense.”
Grantham is looking forward to working with the new defensive players, but also points out that there are several guys on the team who have started.
“We’re excited to get started with the players we’ve got," said Grantham. "If you go back and look, we actually have eight or nine starters coming back depending on how you look at it. When you are losing the number that we lost, and you have that many guys coming back, what that says is that you played a lot of guys. Over the last 28 games, we probably had 24 different starting lineups, mixing and matching and doing those things. We’ve got some guys that have been here for a while and it’s their turn to show what they can do and we’ve got guys that came in mid-year. As coaches, we’re excited to get started. The big thing we always go back to is first, fundamentals at our position, second, learning to compete and playing aggressive, because I think you have to learn to win the position before you can help us win a game and finally learn what to do. If we can get those things done, it carries over to the fall because when we play aggressive and compete and get after it, we create turnovers and we are hard to score on and those are the things we’ve done well the last two years.”
In addition to practices, Grantham will also use scrimmages to evaluate the defense during the spring.
“The big thing with scrimmages is to evaluate what players can and can’t do," Grantham said. "So I’m more concerned about finding out more about us and what we can do and what we can handle and the things that will allow us to be successful. That’s how we’ve always approached it. Obviously, we have to go against our offense because we’re not allowed to scrimmage other teams. So when we go into those scrimmage settings I want to find out what our players can take and carry over to what’s going to help us be productive and get back to Atlanta for the third time."
With so much movement on the secondary, Grantham is already evaluating potential play-makers.
“Damian Swann is a guy that played for us as a freshman and he led our team in interceptions last year and was tremendous last year," said Grantham. "If you look at the way he played and the way he progressed, I expect him to be a leader for us back there. Obviously, Connor Norman is a guy that started for us in the first part of last year. Connor’s been a guy that’s been really good working with the young guys as far as Tray Matthews and Quincy Mauger and helping develop those guys along with Corey Moore. I think that he’s given us some stability there from the standpoint of work ethic, accountability and doing those things so you have to look at that too, but when you start looking at the new guys, and even Corey Moore, this is their chance to really showcase what they can do."
"Tray is a guy that I’ve been really impressed with—his movement skills, his intelligence and the way he handles himself—I think he’s a guy that can definitely help us," continued Grantham. "We’re going to throw him to the fire and let him get going. Quincy is another guy that’s really impressed us since he’s been here. I’m really glad that we have both of those guys right now, because if not we’d be short back there and wouldn’t be able to work with those guys like we can now. Corey is a guy that’s been here, and it will be a chance to step up and show us what he can do. We still have a few other guys that can come in so I think for all those guys, the next 15 days of practice is really critical because we need to find out exactly what they know, what they can do, how they can help us and then where are we going to fit the guys that are coming in.
One player who is looking to make an impact on defense is Josh Harvey-Clemons, and with more depth, Richt feels Harvey-Clemons may be playing multiple positions.
"He’s just one of those guys; he can play safety, he can play outside linebacker, we think he can rush the passer," said Richt. "He’s just a very talented guy. I think one of the reasons that we want to play him at more than one spot is because you face more than one style of offense. There may be a certain offense where you’d like to have him as a safety and another offense where you’d like to have him as an outside linebacker. Certain styles of offense will maybe dictate where he lines up that week. He’s very versatile and there’s certain games where he might add more value as a safety and certain games where he’ll add more value as a linebacker.”
Richt is excited about the new players coming in, but knows that he and his staff will have to take steps to prepare those players to succeed.
"There may be a little bit of separation going on in the meeting time," said Richt. "You might have a graduate assistant coach spending time with the veterans because the veterans are really on autopilot almost and then you might have a full-time coach spending time with the new guys to get them up to speed. Once we hit the field, we’re practicing and we’re going. For example, we’ll get some young quarterbacks in there and we’ll make sure he knows exactly what plays he’ll run when he’s out there with the team in practice. With a veteran, you know you can call anything you want at any time, so you don’t even have to sit and talk with him about it in the meeting. With a young guy, you’ve got to tell him these are the four plays you’re going to have in this team situation, so he knows what he’s doing and when he steps in the huddle he has success the first time around.”
One new player Richt is looking forward to seeing on the field in practice is junior college transfer Jonathon Rumph.
“We’re very excited to see what he might be able to do,” Richt said. “He’s tall, he’s got long arms, he can run, he’s tough, he’s a very conscientious kid and he’s really a neat guy. Just from recruiting him and getting to know him and his family, you knew that he’s not going to come in here and mess around. He’s going to come in here and get right to business. He’s done that in the offseason conditioning, it’s been tough, like it is for a lot of those guys, going through mat drills for the first time. He’s been fighting through it and getting better every day. We can’t want to see what he can do.”
In addition to having goals for the team, Richt also has personal goals for the offseason.
“I plan on spending time in the offseason to really learn the fundamentals of kicking and punting and whatever routines might be important to our guys.,” said Richt. “I’m not going to sit here and say I’ll be an expert after some of the studying I’m going to do, but I want to be better prepared to help guys make sure they stay on track with their fundamentals and how they think. I’ll have an opportunity to be a little more detailed in how to help them stay focused with their fundamentals.”
The Bulldogs start spring practice on Saturday, March 2, and will wrap everything up at the G-Day game on Saturday, April 6 at 1:00 p.m. The G-Day game will be televised live on CSS.