ATHENS, Ga. – The first bit of chaos in what had been a quiet offseason for Georgia became official Saturday with the announcement that three players had violated team rules and would miss the start of the 2009 season.
Tight end Bruce Figgins earned a six-game suspension and defensive end Justin Houston will miss the first two games of the year, while wide receiver Tony Wilson’s career with Georgia may be done.
The school did not issue further details on what rules the players broke, but there was no reported legal trouble for any of them.
"I'm very disappointed in the poor judgment of these players," head coach Mark Richt said in a statement released by the school. "They'll have to pay an appropriate price and I'm confident they will learn an important lesson from their mistake."
The story had been widely reported last week, but Richt refused to immediately comment.
The suspensions are the first of this offseason, but follow a year in which nearly a dozen players missed time or were removed from the program for off-field incidents. Richt had hoped to avoid similar incidents in 2009, discussing a new detail-oriented philosophy that promised punishment for even minor infractions. The violations by Wilson, Houston and Figgins, however, warranted significant consequences.
For Figgins, a former Shaw High School standout, this is his second violation, which could explain the hefty suspension. The junior tight end was benched for Georgia’s opener last season, again for an unnamed team rules violation.
Houston, a third-year sophomore, was being counted on as a key cog on the Bulldogs’ defensive line. By the end of spring practice, he was the only healthy defensive end Georgia had with game experience. His improvement during the spring was noticeable and garnered praise from his coaches.
Wilson played sparingly in 2008 after suffering a severe ankle injury last spring. He spent the latter half of the season sidelined and appeared to be making strides toward returning to full speed in time for the start of the 2009 season.
Instead, his career could be finished. In the statement released by the school, Wilson was said to be “in the process of being medically disqualified from competition,” which negated any punishment for his rules violation.
The numerous off-field problems plagued Georgia a year ago, even as the team began the season with a No. 1 ranking in the polls.
Snapper Jeff Hensen was arrested on alcohol-related charges in the week prior to Georgia’s Sugar Bowl victory, while fullback Fred Munzenmaier and offensive tackle Clint Boling also landed in legal trouble and began the season on suspension.
Offensive linemen Trinton Sturdivant and Justin Anderson were arrested on assault charges which were eventually dropped, but defensive end Michael Lemon, who also was charged with assault in a separate incident, was dismissed from the team. Just days before the team opened fall practice, three players were involved in incidents that resulted in a suspension for linebacker Darius Dewberry and dismissals for Donavon Baldwin and Hensen.
Two more players – offensive lineman Kevin Perez and defensive tackle Brandon Wood – were suspended midseason for alcohol-related offenses as well. Offensive lineman Vince Vance was also arrested mid-season for driving without a license.
“I don’t know if there is (a bad perception of the program) but by the time our season started there was,” Richt said of last year’s off-field troubles.
The result was a more stringent disciplinary approach this offseason, Richt said, with coaches focusing on even minor details that may have been ignored in years past.
“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.”
The losses of Houston, Figgins and Wilson could have a significant impact both on the field and off for this year’s Georgia team.
The Bulldogs were already short at receiver with senior Kris Durham expected to miss the season with a shoulder injury. With Wilson now out, Georgia will start the year with just two receivers with more than four career catches.
The same problems exist at tight end – a position that all but disappeared from Georgia’s offense a year ago. With Figgins out the first six games, Georgia will have to rely on Aron White – a third-year sophomore – as its only experienced tight end.
White showed signs of improvement late last season and during spring practice, but he has just three career catches and is not considered a strong blocking tight end. Incoming recruits Orson Charles and Arthur Lynch will likely play larger roles at the tight end position with Figgins out.
Houston’s loss is perhaps the most problematic. By the end of spring practice, Houston and converted offensive lineman Kiante Tripp were Georgia’s only healthy defensive ends, and Houston appeared to have taken a big step forward in his development. He’ll miss games against offensive powerhouse Oklahoma State and SEC rival South Carolina to begin the 2009 season.
More than anything, however, the latest round of suspension are yet another black eye for a program that has seen its reputation take a brutal hit during the past 18 months.
“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 as the team wrapped up spring practice last month. “We’ve all been through it, and we don’t want it to happen again.”