ATHENS, Ga. — After spending the last nine months promising tougher practices, Mark Richt looked at the overcast skies last Friday and hoped the rain would come. His team was battered, sore, exhausted. He knew the players needed a break, but unless Mother Nature offered the respite, he couldn’t give it to them.
As it turned out, the weather held, the Bulldogs took the practice field, and Richt saw a team that continued to fight, despite the aching muscles and weary bodies.
“They are tired, they are sore, but they responded,” Richt said.
Georgia’s preparations shift this week to include a larger focus on its first game against Oklahoma State, but Richt hopes the work the Bulldogs put in during past three weeks will carry over.
“I know that the greater condition you’re in, the harder you can practice and the longer you can practice,” Richt said. “That’s what we wanted to establish with the entire football team.”
As the injuries accumulated last season, Georgia’s practices were scaled back. Richt rolled the dice on preparing his players in order to avoid the risk of another costly injury. The result was a series of lapses in basic fundamentals that often bordered on embarrassment, and the Georgia coach vowed a change this year.
There isn’t a player in the Bulldogs’ locker room willing to say Richt didn’t follow through on his promise. Their bodies are a testament to how grueling this preseason has been. The tempo has been frenetic, the contact has been intense and the preparation has been sharp.
With temperatures approaching triple digits on a lot of August afternoons, the Bulldogs have stayed late on the practice fields routinely, running additional drills and pushing their bodies to the breaking point. It has been a tribute to the intensity the team sorely lacked a year ago.
“It has been so intense,” defensive tackle Jeff Owens said. “My body aches, my body’s sore. But to be great, you’ve got to keep pushing. You must get better every day. Some people say we’re going to go 8-4, but we’ve all got to play, and I think the sky is the limit for this team.”
More than injuries
While the injuries stole a large portion of Georgia’s work ethic a year ago, there was more to the story. The preseason expectations have provided motivation this year, but things were much different when the team began the 2008 season atop the polls.
“The preseason hype got to us,” Owens said. “Guys thought we had already arrived. People thought we were better than we really were. I don’t think we worked as hard as we are now to get to that level. Now everyone’s going out with a level head and trying to get better no matter what they throw at us. We’re fighting as a team, and we’re going to become great.”
Motivation isn’t hard to find.
The coaches are barking orders at an alarming volume, a job Richt said they have executed wonderfully this preseason.
The pundits haven’t simply criticized Georgia. With reigning national champion Florida in the same division, most of the experts have outright dismissed the Bulldogs.
But perhaps most of all, it’s that date quickly approaching on the calendar: Sept. 5 at Oklahoma State.
For the first time in six years, Georgia will open the season away from home. With Oklahoma State ranked in the preseason top 10, it might be the Bulldogs’ toughest opening-week adversary in nearly two decades. For a defense that limped to the finish line last season, the Cowboys’ high-powered offense offers as immense a challenge as Georgia could ask for to start its season.
“Our schedule is ridiculously tough,” defensive end Demarcus Dobbs said. “There’s no week we can let up. I think the coaches see the bigger picture, and they’re trying to get us ready for the upcoming season and especially for the upcoming team. They’re such a fast-paced offense, such an explosive offense, so I think the coaches are just trying to push us over the limit so we’ll be ready by the time the game comes.”
That’s really what it’s all about — being ready.
A year ago, Georgia wasn’t ready. The team wasn’t physically prepared for the grind of an SEC season. The Bulldogs weren’t mentally prepared for the effort success required. Instead of reaching their lofty potential, they languished in mediocrity.
While Richt touted a renewed focus in practice this offseason, he also was quick to point out that Georgia did, after all, finish with 10 wins last season. It’s an impressive enough total.
For linebacker Rennie Curran, however, that record is a hollow reward. There’s little comfort, he said, in knowing the team failed to put forth the effort to reach its potential.
Last Friday’s practice was painful, Curran said. His body ached and his lungs struggled for breath. But he wasn’t staring longingly at those rain clouds. The pain felt good. It felt right. It was how football was supposed to feel.
“We know nobody’s going to feel sorry for us this season, nobody’s going to give us any breaks when it comes to playing those games,” Curran said. “If we don’t sacrifice now, it’s going to get ugly. The way I look at it is I’d rather hurt now than hurt on ESPN or in front of those fans and look sloppy in front of the fans. We’ve been putting work in day in and day out, and hopefully it’s going to pay off.”