ATHENS, Ga. — It has been just three years since Bryan McClendon played his final game at Georgia, but the Bulldogs’ new running backs coach said the rest of the staff has welcomed him with open arms, even if he’s still getting used to calling them by their first names instead of “Coach.”
A few players, like Bryan Evans and Joe Cox, remain on the roster from McClendon’s playing days, but they have always looked up to him as a coach, even when he was still tracking down passes from D.J. Shockley his senior year.
In truth, McClendon said, his meteoric rise from out-of-work former player to grad assistant to assistant coach at his alma mater has been like a dream.
“I’ll be the first to tell you it’s a true blessing,” said McClendon, who turned 25 last month. “It just shows that hard work does pay off. I just came here and tried to help out as much as I could, and I learned a good bit and was able to help out a good bit. Apparently they liked the job I’ve done, and I couldn’t ask to be in a better place.”
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While the former standout wide receiver hasn’t hit too many speed bumps on his road to a career in coaching, he has his work cut out for him in the months ahead.
After graduating from Georgia following the 2005 season, he made the roster of the Chicago Bears, but an injury put a quick end to his NFL career. He landed as a graduate assistant at Georgia and for the past two years has worked with the wide receivers, earning high praise from the likes of A.J. Green and Tavarres King.
When head coach Mark Richt restructured the offensive coaching staff last week, McClendon’s path took a sharp turn. Wide receivers coach John Eason was moved to the team’s administrative staff, while running backs coach Tony Ball took over Eason’s job.
McClendon was working in his office when Richt called him into a meeting. The two chatted for a few minutes, and then Richt broke the news. McClendon had a full-time job, and he would now be in charge of Georgia’s running game.
“It may have been something that he already knew he was going to do, but I’m not sure how he got to that conclusion,” McClendon said. “I didn’t know what to expect. I didn’t know anything. It turned out to be a pretty good day.”
Moving to running backs won’t be too tough a task from an X’s and O’s standpoint, McClendon said. As a graduate assistant, he said he game planned with coaches for the whole offense, so he was already responsible for knowing what the backs were supposed to do on each play.
“The biggest thing is just having a plan and knowing how you’re going to teach it,” McClendon said.
That, however, doesn’t mean his job will be easy.
Knowshon Moreno, Georgia’s top running back for the past two years, announced last week he would leave school early to enter the NFL draft, leaving behind a young and inexperienced group of runners to compete for carries.
“Of course, if Knowshon was here, everyone would have thought I’d done a real good job coaching my first year,” McClendon said. “It’s no doubt a challenge, and we’ve just got to take it on.”
Sophomores Caleb King and Richard Samuel are the only two tailbacks on the roster to have carried the ball in 2008, while freshmen Carlton Thomas and Dontavius Jackson were redshirted.
King and Samuel both struggled at times, mostly with blocking, and neither firmly established himself as the team’s true No. 2.
“I told them that the running back position as far as playing time was the land of opportunity,” he said. “It’s wide open. Nobody’s locked in to anything now as one, two or three. That’s a decision they have to make.”
Until Moreno’s arrival as the starting tailback midway through the 2007 season, Georgia had routinely employed a backfield-by-committee under Richt, and McClendon said that could be the case again in 2009. The Bulldogs just began their offseason training, and McClendon said it will be up to one of his running backs to impress enough that he assumes control of the starting job.
While McClendon said he hasn’t penciled any names onto the depth chart yet, he did say that Samuel would be on it somewhere.
The bulky tailback who averaged 5 yards per carry as a freshman was rumored to be in line for a switch to linebacker, but McClendon said Samuel’s future as a runner remains bright.
“He has all the chance in the world to be a great one, to be a special running back,” McClendon said.
Just three years removed from the practice field, McClendon’s future seems bright, too.
Coaching has always been in his blood, McClendon said. His father played and coached at Georgia, too, and he has always known this was where he wanted to end up.
The fact that he landed the job so quickly, however, was simply a product of where he came from.
“This staff is full of good coaches that have done it for a while,” McClendon said. “Most of all, I think I’m more of an addition to the staff because I’m more like them than not — how they recruit, how they work, and just the whole Georgia way.”