ATHENS, Ga. — When ESPN handed the play-by-play duties for Georgia’s annual G-Day game to broadcaster Brad Nessler, he had just one minor request: no jackets and ties.
This is, after all, a scrimmage game in April rather than a mid-November SEC showdown, and things don’t need to be so formal for the network’s first broadcast of the annual spring football game at Sanford Stadium.
“It’s a two-hour show more than a two-hour game,” Nessler said. “I guess for some of the kids, it’s a two-hour showcase for some of them. We approach it a little differently. We’re going to have a lot of fun.”
Nessler’s request was granted, and ESPN’s on-air talent — Nessler, Kirk Herbstreit and Wendi Nix — won’t be in midseason regalia, but for Georgia’s players, today’s scrimmage is a final dress rehearsal for the roles they hope to nail down before fall camp.
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The G-Day game is the final session of the 15 spring practices allowed by the NCAA, and while the players hope to use the opportunity to make one final impression on the coaching staff, the entire program is using the opportunity to show off in front of a national audience.
“I wanted us to play our spring game on ESPN because I think it’s great exposure for our program,” Georgia athletic director Damon Evans said. “I want people to be talking about Georgia football. To have your spring game on national TV, that means people on the West coast can see it, people up north, Midwest. That’s what it’s all about. I’ve always talked about growing our presence nationally, and this is one way, another step in doing that.”
Kickoff is at 1 p.m.
The scrimmage will pit Georgia’s first-team offense and second-team defense on one side and the first-team defense and second-team offense on the other. They’ll play four abbreviated quarters without live punts or kickoffs, but the rest of the action will be similar to an actual game-day environment. Kickoff is set for 1 p.m.
This is the first time Georgia’s spring game has been broadcast nationally, a trend that began with Alabama and Florida during the past two offseasons. Alabama will have another of its spring games televised by ESPN next Saturday.
The Crimson Tide’s spring game drew more than 90,000 fans two years ago, and head coach Mark Richt said he hopes Georgia fans will turn out in similar numbers. There will be no charge for admission to the game, although fans are encouraged to bring a donation of canned goods for the Food Bank of Northeast Georgia.
“We really want to fill it up and encourage our fans to show the nation what we’re all about,” Richt said. “I want the nation to see a team that plays hard, that competes, that has a good time doing it, is organized and well coached and disciplined.”
Walk-ons show skills
Among the players, today’s game offers differing opportunities.
For many of the walk-ons, the game is a unique chance to show their skills on the field. Ben Harbin and Trenton Turner were working as backup tight ends earlier this spring, but thanks to a bevy of injuries to Georgia’s scholarship defensive ends, both will be starting pass rushers for the red team Saturday.
Some of Georgia’s unheralded youngsters will be getting their first work in front of the cameras, too. Quarterback Zach Mettenberger arrived on campus just three months ago, but he’s hoping to show a national TV audience that he’s a quick learner.
“Coming from a small school that wasn’t the best football program in the nation, it will definitely be different playing on live TV,” Mettenberger said. “Hopefully I can go out there and show people what Zach Mettenberger can do and have a good day.”
For many of Georgia’s veterans, however, the game simply offers a final opportunity to suit up and dish out a few hits, throw a few passes and impress a few thousand fans for the last time before fall camp begins in August.
“That type of publicity is going to get everybody a little more energized, and I think that just comes with having all the fans in the stands,” quarterback Joe Cox said. “But at the same time, it’s just our 15th practice, and it’s on television.”
Not that the game will be without a few intriguing story lines.
The emergence of tailback Carlton Thomas this spring has thrown an already tight competition for the starting running back job into a fierce battle with rising sophomore Caleb King. Cox’s snaps as the starting quarterback with the first-team offense will be his first in nearly three years, and many Georgia fans are anxiously awaiting their first chance to get a look at what the fifth-year senior will bring to the table in the fall.
Most importantly, it’s an early look at what could be in store for the Bulldogs in 2009 — a season that will come with far different expectations than the team faced last spring.
“This time a year ago they were talking No. 1 and all that stuff,” Nessler said. “With the expectations maybe a little bit lower, they might turn around and have as good a year or a better year without those expectations weighing on their shoulders. This is kind of the start of it.”