ATHENS, Ga. — It has been a summer of healing for Georgia, and for that a grateful Mark Richt offered one word:
Georgia returned to the practice fields last week with improved health after 13 players missed spring practice with injuries. The team’s public image also has recovered, thanks to players avoiding the police blotter during the offseason.
The 2008 injury list was topped by Jeff Owens, Trenton Sturdivant and Vince Vance.
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Owens and Sturdivant were regarded as Georgia’s top defensive and offensive linemen, respectively, before their season-ending knee injuries early in the season. Vance was Sturdivant’s replacement before he also had his season end with a knee injury.
The return of the injured players has Richt feeling good about the Bulldogs’ improved depth entering the preseason practice schedule.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s reputation also is on the mend.
One year ago, Richt was forced to devote much of his preseason press conference to questions about players being arrested, dismissed or suspended. All the negative news reports were damaging blows to Georgia’s image, especially when the Bulldogs were in the national spotlight with their 2008 preseason No. 1 ranking.
There’s no No. 1 ranking for Georgia this preseason, but there also have been no offseason arrests or dismissals.
More than one observer suggested a link between the discipline problems on and off the field for the 2008 team. Georgia ranked 116th in the nation with its average of 8.62 penalties per game, including 10 penalties in a 41-30 loss to Alabama and a combined 15 in losses to Florida and Georgia Tech.
In May, Richt suspended tight end Bruce Figgins (Shaw High) for six games and defensive end Justin Houston for two games for an unspecified violation of team rules, but otherwise there were no reports of problems.
The mention of his team’s good behavior prompted the “Amen” from Richt in his preseason press conference. There were similar reactions from some of his players.
“We knew we didn’t want to come into camp and be embarrassed like we were last year,” said quarterback Joe Cox. “We had to hear from everyone about how undisciplined we were.
“I don’t know how much off-field problems translate onto the field. It definitely does help when you preach discipline into everything you do. … We were penalized so much it hurt us in a lot of situations.”
Could better discipline from the Bulldogs away from the field be a good sign for the 2009 season?
“We hope,” Richt said. “Have we been a more disciplined team from January to August than a year ago? Yes, we have. Hopefully it will translate to a more disciplined team on the field.”
Added Cox: “It’s the same group of guys, but we all grew up.”
Georgia finished 10-3 with a No. 13 final ranking last season. It was the sixth season with 10 or more wins in Richt’s eight years in Athens, but it was a disappointment following the No. 1 preseason ranking.
Richt’s teams finished No. 2 in 2007 and No. 3 in 2002.
“We have not finished at the very top, the No. 1 ranking, at the end of the year, but we’ve gotten as close as you can get on a couple of occasions,” Richt said. “If we keep banging around we’ll get to the top eventually.”
Georgia must replace two first-round draft picks, quarterback Matthew Stafford, the No. 1 overall selection, and tailback Knowshon Moreno. Receiver Mohamed Massaquoi was a second-round pick.
Cox, a fifth-year senior, has the confidence of Richt and his staff as Stafford’s replacement. But there is no established starter at tailback, where sophomore Caleb King tops the depth chart.
The questions on offense have kept Georgia out of the preseason national championship discussion.
That’s fine with Richt.
“I think just being preseason No. 2 is a whole lot better than being preseason No. 1,” Richt said.
“I enjoyed this summer a whole lot better than I did a year ago, I can tell you that, for a whole lot of reasons.”