Coaching them up, under tough circumstances

semerson@macon.comDecember 29, 2013 

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- Tony Ball places the five small orange cones on the ground, about a foot from each other. Three in one row. Two in the other row. Ball doesn’t like where one cone is placed. He reaches down and moves it an inch over.

Exactly one inch.

Then Georgia’s receivers coach steps back, leans down with his hands on his knees and lets his receivers know the drill is beginning. The players then spring into action, and Ball begins exhorting.

“Gotta turn those hips, Michael!”

“It ain’t hard, men!”

“That’s it! See that Reggie?”

Later, Georgia’s receivers are liable to practice catching passes one-handed and over their shoulder or one-hoppers off the ground. Yes, one-hoppers.

“You’re like, ‘When are we gonna catch balls off the ground?’ ” junior receiver Michael Bennett said. “But it’s about focus. Yeah, there is a method to the madness.”

The method paid off this year for Ball as well as running backs coach Bryan McClendon. Those two assistant coaches were hit with a ridiculous rash of injuries at their positions. They were left playing, and sometimes starting, players who began the season far down the depth chart.

Ball and McClendon managed, and so did Georgia’s offense. It enters the bowl season ranked fourth in the SEC in total offense, propelled in large part by quarterback Aaron Murray and offensive coordinator Mike Bobo.

But the ability of Ball and McClendon to fashion something out of walk-ons and lightly recruited players is equally remarkable. Especially considering that until recently many wondered whether they should switch jobs: Ball, 54, was a running backs coach for much of his career, including his first three years at Georgia. McClendon, 30, was a receiver at Georgia and has been known more for his recruiting chops.

“He’s blossomed into one heck of a coach,” head coach Mark Richt said of McClendon, before stopping himself from saying more. “I just don’t like bragging too much about these guys because everybody wants to snag them. So I don’t want that to happen.”

Ball interviewed with Tennessee last year, before Georgia gave him a raise to stay. McClendon also got a raise, it was pointed out to Richt.

“Hey,” Richt said, taking a long sip of Powerade. “If you do a good job, maybe it’ll happen again.”

Entering this season, McClendon figured he could rely almost exclusively on Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall, a couple of four-star recruits. Instead, he ended up having to coach up two freshmen: Brendan Douglas, the lowest-rated recruit in Georgia’s class this year, and J.J. Green, a converted receiver-cornerback.

They have rushed for 692 yards this season, averaging more than 5.0 yards per carry, with three touchdowns apiece.

“At the beginning of the year, I’m not sure if anybody knew that they would have to contribute as early at that position as they have,” McClendon said. “I do know that I was confident that those guys would put in the work to get better. And I did know they were going to allow themselves to work hard enough to get better each week. Now as far as where exactly that would take you, I really wouldn’t know. But I’m glad we’ve got them.”

Ball has been relying on walk-ons and lower-rated recruits for a while. Many forget that Chris Conley and Michael Bennett were three-star recruits. They were Georgia’s two leading receivers this year, after Malcolm Mitchell’s season-ending ACL injury.

But with Conley and Bennett also suffering injuries, there have been times when Georgia has played walk-ons (Kenneth Towns, Michael Erdman) and freshmen who weren’t big name recruits (Reggie Davis).

“He doesn’t see a difference, whether you’re a walk-on or a scholarship guy -- obviously, because I’ve gotten the opportunities I’ve gotten,” said senior Rhett McGowan, who walked on five years ago and had 20 catches this year, including a touchdown and one of the biggest catches of the season, against Florida.

“He is such a stickler for detail,” Richt said of Ball. “He coaches everybody the same. There’s no A.J. Green, or there’s no walk-on to him, as far as ‘I’m gonna treat this guy different from another guy.’ ”

Ball was asked if this was his most challenging year as a coach. He thought a moment, before saying, “Yes. And because, again, you lost a lot of experience, you lost a lot of versatility,” he said, going on to explain how injuries caused players to have to learn new positions. Receiver is more an umbrella term for multiple positions, such as flanker and split end.

“With the number of young men who were injured, it was catastrophe for the offense,” Ball said. “But for the young men that had to play, that was their blessing. That was their bright spot. I thought those kids did a good job of rising to that challenge. That was a dream come true for them.”

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