ATHENS, Ga. — In Georgia’s weight room, there’s a clock counting down the days, minutes and seconds until the team kicks off against Oklahoma State to open the 2009 season. It’s a rather traditional bit of offseason motivation, but it underscores the feeling of immediacy and desperation that has been the hallmark of the team’s attitude since January.
Last season, the Bulldogs had as much talent as anyone in the country, but their focus wasn’t there.
This offseason, new locker-room leaders promised things would be better, and from January’s bowl victory through last week’s G-Day game, they delivered.
“It has been a different type of offseason,” wide receiver Kris Durham said. “They’ve pushed us as hard as we can go.”
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But even with spring practice concluded and the long offseason away from coaches just beginning, the clock in Georgia’s weight room still ticks off the seconds at a frenzied pace. That’s the image etched in the minds of Georgia’s leaders who know the next few months could be the most crucial stretch of the team’s offseason.
“We’re going to have to come together and make sure people are getting in the weight room when they need to be, spending some extra time in the film room,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “We really can’t waste a day of this offseason.”
It’s not that players didn’t recite the same refrains a year ago. A national championship seemed within reach, after all. But looking back, the pieces to the puzzle weren’t all in place when the team opened fall practice. Too many days had been wasted last offseason.
Participation in voluntary workouts wasn’t what it should have been. Preparation for the upcoming season fell short of the standards coaches had set. The focus of too many players had shifted away from football, and the result was an embarrassing series of off-field distractions that cast a shadow over the start of what could have been one of the most exciting seasons in Georgia history.
“Everyone who was here last year knows how embarrassing it was to have the Georgia name and the Georgia family blasted in the media,” fullback Shaun Chapas said. “We’ve all been through it, and we don’t want it to happen again.”
The job of preventing a similar scenario, however, is not solely the responsibility of the coaching staff.
NCAA restrictions prevent Georgia’s coaches from direct contact with players during the summer months between the G-Day game and the start of fall practice.
“The last two character education meetings we had with the seniors, that’s exactly what we talked about, getting a plan on,” head coach Mark Richt said. “They’ve got to do it. They’ve got to lead. They’ve got to be the ones to make sure this summer goes the way it should on the field and off the field.”
Last year, that plan unraveled quickly, and the results proved disastrous.
Before Georgia’s Sugar Bowl game, long-snapper Jeff Henson was arrested on a DUI charge. Just weeks later, fullback Fred Munzenmaier received a two-game suspension after he was arrested and charged with underage consumption of alcohol. Offensive lineman Clint Boling earned a one-game suspension after a reckless-driving charge. Linemen Trinton Sturdivant and Justin Anderson landed in hot water after a pregnant woman accused them of assault, although those charges were later dropped and neither player served a suspension.
Defensive end Michael Lemon was arrested for assault charges in July and was eventually dismissed from the team. Henson and defensive back Donovan Baldwin were also dismissed from the team for incidents that occurred just days before fall practice began in August, while linebacker Darius Dewberry earned a two-game suspension, as well, after destroying property at an Athens hospital the same evening.
Several other players were punished in-house without facing suspensions, but nevertheless proved to be distractions.
It was a black eye for a program that should have relished the spotlight that comes with a preseason No. 1 ranking. Instead, the off-field problems were the focus in the media, and the effects trickled into the season.
“This time last year, we had a lot of guys in trouble,” senior defensive tackle Jeff Owens said. “That hurt us a lot. A lot of guys weren’t focused on the main things, on what was more important.”
Richt tightens up
The problems led Richt to make serious changes to the Bulldogs’ offseason routine this year.
Through the years, Richt said, he had mellowed. Many of the strict rules he had regarding minor details like facial hair on players or the cleanliness of the locker room had slipped away. In the grand scheme of things, they seemed trivial. A happy team, he reasoned, was better than a clean-shaven one.
But as Richt watched his team collapse following the numerous offseason arrests, then play on Saturdays without the discipline he had always preached, he began to rethink his own attitude.
“I probably asked myself, ‘Is it really that important that that guy’s shirt is tucked in on that play? Is it really going to make a difference between winning and losing?’” Richt said. “I think the answer is yes, and I spent a little moment there where I didn’t think it was as important as it really was. Every little thing is important.”
That’s where the offseason focus started.
Shirttails were tucked in, chin straps were snapped, the locker room was spotless after each practice. The details were essential.
In the weight room, the coaches became more involved, too. Assistants were on hand to spot players on bench press and offer a bit of vocal encouragement anytime someone slacked.
Mat drills were harder, the practices were faster, and the coaches demanded more. Junior wideout Tony Wilson said it was by far the most grueling offseason workouts he had ever been through at any level of football.
As spring drew to a close, Richt spent time with each of the team’s leaders, preaching the importance of maintaining the same focus and work ethic into the summer. It’s an old adage Wilson said he hears from position coach Tony Ball nearly every day.
“I can make you do it when you’re out here with me, but what are you going to do behind closed doors when nobody’s watching,” Wilson said, mimicking his coach. “But that’s what the great players do, trying to get an upper hand on somebody.”
Wilson has repeated the lesson to his peers, and he hasn’t been alone.
A year ago, Georgia had plenty of stars, but the leadership was questionable. The Bulldogs’ best players were underclassmen and weren’t exactly the most vocal contingent in the locker room. The senior class was thin, and the leadership suffered.
This year, players like Wilson, Curran and quarterback Joe Cox have worked to establish a player-driven work ethic in the locker room, and it’s one Cox hopes can continue without the oversight of coaches.
“We’ve had a lot more people step up this year, older guys that have taken it upon themselves to be leaders in the weight room and even leaders in January and February,” Cox said. “Really it’s just a question of having those same guys that have been leading to keep leading and the guys who have been following to keep doing the right thing.”
Cox said he has already talked with players about ways to ensure the offseason runs smoothly this year.
Just 48 hours after G-Day ended, the team was back in the weight room. They’ll continue workouts through the end of the semester before getting an NCAA-mandated month off.
The problem, Cox said, is that once the regimented workouts of the spring have ended, too many players tend to go in separate directions. Any locker room has cliques, Cox said, but the key is keeping everyone together when it matters.
With more than two-dozen players missing spring practice because of injuries and another 17 freshmen scheduled to arrive on campus in June, establishing the team dynamic during the summer months is essential to a successful fall, so that month away from the practice field can’t mean a month apart from each other.
“We’ve got to find ways to make everything this summer fun,” Cox said, “make sure no one misses anything, make sure everybody comes to get better every day.”
Cox said he already has events planned to bring the team together, including barbecues and summer outings that are ostensibly about enjoying their time away from the field but are essentially a time to make sure everyone is getting their work done, keeping their bodies in shape and staying out of trouble.
“We didn’t like what happened last year,” said strength and conditioning coach Dave Van Halanger, one of the few members of Georgia’s coaching staff allowed contact with players during the summer. “We were ranked No. 1, and you don’t end up like that. You lose three games. You don’t compete as hard as you wanted to. You’re going to come back and be fired up for sure.”
It may be an impossible task for a few veteran leaders to shepherd an entire team through a potentially tumultuous offseason, but Van Halanger said he’s happy with what he has seen so far.
The mistakes of last season still haunt too many players, and that clock in the weight room keeps on ticking down to Georgia’s date with Oklahoma State.