In the span of one 30-minute news conference Wednesday, Georgia said goodbye to two players responsible for 88 percent of the offense the Bulldogs accumulated in 2008.
When Matthew Stafford and Knowshon Moreno announced they would forego their final seasons of college eligibility to enter the NFL draft, two immense voids immediately opened.
Their departure all but ensures Georgia won’t begin a second straight year as the preseason No. 1 team in the country, but as coach Mark Richt made clear, it doesn’t change the Bulldogs’ goals of winning a conference title.
“There’s a lot of things we can improve on as a football team that can give us an opportunity to win the East. Now if I had my choice, I’d like these guys to stick around,” Richt said.
“I would think we’d have a better chance with them, but there’s a lot that goes into it.”
While the Bulldogs’ offense won’t look the same this season as it did last year, Richt thinks the ingredients for a championship contender are still in place and improvement could be in store in other areas.
Georgia struggled on defense in 2008, but the Bulldogs are likely to return key seniors in Jeff Owens, Geno Atkins, Rod Battle, Prince Miller and Asher Allen. Georgia also landed two top defensive recruits last week in defensive end Montez Robinson and cornerback Branden Smith, who was rated by Rivals.com as the top prospect in Georgia.
Moreno and Stafford’s departures, along with the graduation of senior Mohamed Massaquoi, mean Georgia’s skill positions on offense will take a hit, but the Bulldogs expect significant improvement on the offensive line in 2009 after suffering through a series of injuries last season.
Vince Vance and Trinton Sturdivant both expect to be healthy in time for fall camp, meaning Georgia could enjoy a competition for playing time that will include as many as nine linemen with starting experience.
Rising sophomore A.J. Green will also have another year of experience under his belt after leading the SEC in receiving this season.
Green was named to the Football Writers Association of America Freshman All-American team Thursday.
Of course, until the season begins, the biggest questions will surround the void left by Stafford and Moreno. Where fans see two significant losses, however, Richt sees opportunity.
Richt named Joe Cox as his starting quarterback entering the spring, but said a fierce competition could emerge between a quartet of running backs.
Sophomores Caleb King and Richard Samuel earned some playing time behind Moreno in 2008, while freshmen Dontavius Jackson and Carlton Thomas will get their first taste of action this year.
“We’ve got four other backs in the program right now,” Richt said.
“I know right now Caleb and Richard and Dontavius and Carlton are excited that, hey, my time might be here right now.”
While the battle at quarterback may not be as competitive, Stafford’s replacement said that intensity is the one thing he doesn’t have to worry about.
Growing up, Cox said, he tried to emulate NFL star Brett Favre by bringing enthusiasm and energy onto the field each game. He now considers that to be his greatest asset.
“I feel like I can get this team together and have everybody have the same goal and hopefully bring some fire to everybody,” Cox said.
“I’m a rah-rah guy. I like being vocal. I like getting loud. That’s just how I play. Hopefully if I can transfer that to just a couple other people on the team, it could spread like wildfire.”
Moreno and Stafford brought tons of talent into the Bulldogs’ locker room, but Cox said there were times when the team didn’t play with the intensity they needed, and he thinks his personality could help to remedy that this season.
“You can see certain games where it just seemed like we were flat,” Cox said.
“We just needed somebody or something to spark it, and hopefully I can bring the way I like to play, hopefully that can change some things and maybe bring some fire to us.”
Richt said that with Cox under center and a new group of runners in the backfield, this season’s offense will have a different look, but not necessarily a less successful or more conservative approach.
In fact, even without two of the biggest stars to call Georgia home during Richt’s tenure with the Bulldogs, Cox said he doesn’t expect much to change at all.
“We still have the same type of guys,” Cox said.
“It always hurts when you lose two superstars like Matthew and Knowshon and another in Mohamed, but the good thing about football is, once somebody leaves, somebody’s got to step up, and we’ve got plenty of guys to do that at every position.”