MACON, Ga. — After at least one spring practice session in which an overwhelming contingent of his team wore green non-contact jerseys, Mark Richt quipped that, once June came around and those injured players were finally healthy, he would be the happiest man in America.
True to his word, Richt donned a broad smile for most of Tuesday’s Pigskin Preview at the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame. For the first time in a long time, he was sharing good news with reporters about the reports from the trainer’s room. Richt said most of the more than two dozen players who missed all or parts of spring practice are back to work and only two or three wouldn’t be at 100 percent by the time fall practice starts in August.
“It’s awesome having those guys that all those guys who were injured are back,” Richt said. “Then you add all the freshmen, and there’s 45 to 50 healthy bodies compared to how we started spring football or how we finished the season. That’s pretty darned good.”
Perhaps showing off his new healthy corps of players, Richt brought offensive lineman Vince Vance and defensive tackle Rod Battle with him to Macon on Tuesday. Both players were expected to be key contributors in 2008 but missed significant portions of the season.
Vance said he’s at 90 to 95 percent health after tearing his ACL in October. Battle, who suffered through a neck injury last season and missed spring practice with a shoulder injury, said he’s just a bit shy of that.
Both players were simply happy to see a light at the end of the tunnel after a long road to recovery.
“Everybody is kind of rejuvenated, re-energized to know we have a clean slate again,” Battle said. “We’re just ready to go back to work.”
That, however, is sort of a misleading statement. While the recovering Bulldogs are anxious to get back to full practices, they have all been working hard. Getting through rehab and rebuilding their strength have been an arduous process, but Vance said there was, at the very least, strength in numbers.
“Like all athletes, we made it a little competition, saying, ‘I’m going to come back just as fast as you are,’ ” said Vance, who trailed Jeff Owens by six weeks and Trinton Sturdivant by two months in their recoveries from knee injuries. “It was nice to have somebody to relate to. We were all in there hurting and getting better together.”
That was the one bright spot to the sheer quantity of injuries Georgia endured last season.
Battle said he would often look around the training room and see a packed house, then simply shake his head at the absurdity of it all.
“It felt like we had our own little team,” Battle said. “It seemed like we had somebody represented from every position and probably a little bit of depth to go with it. It was just a weird situation, and I’ve never been around something like that in my time in football.”
Richt shared a similar sentiment, and his memory goes back a good bit longer than Battle’s.
Now that the seemingly incomprehensible number of bruised and batter players is returning to health, however, the bigger mystery for Richt is simply finding a way to prevent the rash of injuries from occurring again.
That won’t be a simple solution, he admitted, and finding a balance between the fast pace the team needs to be ready for game day while ensuring no one gets hurt as a result of being overextended will be a top priority once players report for fall practice.
“I want to start in such a way where we don’t go guns blazing early on and then we have a bunch of guys watching instead of practicing, so that’s something I want to look at real closely,” Richt said. “And then I just want to establish a tremendous practice and work ethic, especially defensively, that will allow you to establish that mental and physical edge that you need.”