Georgia’s players remained quiet a day after three-fourths of the team’s defensive staff was dismissed by head coach Mark Richt, but several of the Bulldogs’ former defensive mainstays have offered support for the program and sadness for their former coaches.
Georgia parted ways with defensive coordinator Willie Martinez and defensive ends coach Jon Fabris, who both had been with Richt since his first season in 2001, along with linebackers coach John Jancek after the team finished the regular season with a 7-5 record and a defense that ranked 71st in points allowed and 90th in pass efficiency defense nationally.
Still, for the ex-players under Martinez, Fabris and Jancek, the news is a surprise and a disappointment.
“I’ve been hearing stuff for the last two or three weeks, but it’s always tough whenever somebody that you have a lot of respect for and means a lot to you is put in a position like that,” said Andrew Williams, a former walk-on who spent six years in the program as a special-teams regular for Fabris and a safety working with Martinez. “You can’t blame Coach Richt or point fingers, but I guess it’s just a sticky situation that’s tough to swallow.”
Williams and others who had been a part of Georgia’s SEC championship teams in the earlier part of the decade expressed sympathy for the coaches. But they also wanted to view this week’s changes as a sign that Richt was committed to regaining the same success that his defense had early in his career.
Bring back Junkyard
“I would like for us to get back to those ‘Junkyard Dawgs’ that just don’t let anything happen, no matter what situation the offense put them in or special teams put them in,” said Kelin Johnson, who played safety for the Bulldogs. “Let’s go out there and get the ball back. Let’s be ball hawks. And no matter what happens, we’re going to be successful.”
That has been a hope echoed by many frustrated fans during the past few seasons as Georgia’s defense has slipped from one of the most stingy in the SEC to a unit that has allowed 34 points or more 10 times in the past two years.
But while fans have longed for a return to the defense’s heyday under former coordinator Brian VanGorder, linebacker Tony Gilbert, who played on the Bulldogs’ 2002 SEC championship squad, said there’s little difference between the approach VanGorder took then and what Martinez has employed the past few years.
“It’s the same defense, the same scheme,” said Gilbert, who now plays for VanGorder with the Atlanta Falcons. “They’re both fiery guys. They care a lot about their players and are very strong about letting their guys know what they’re doing out there.”
While the scheme and temperament haven’t changed, the players have, so Williams wonders whether the slide that led to Martinez’s dismissal is more about talent than coaching.
During Georgia’s peak seasons defensively, the Bulldogs featured several future NFL players, including David Pollack, Odell Thurman and Thomas Davis.
“You had a lot of playmakers, and that makes a difference,” Williams said of the VanGorder years at Georgia. “It’s not to take anything away from anyone who has played since then, but those are some big names. Players like that only come around every so often, and our team was blessed enough to have them all at the same time.”
In the past four seasons, however, no Georgia defensive player has been taken in the first round of the draft and few have made lasting impacts at the next level.
But Gilbert said there’s more to success than talent and coaching, and recent Georgia teams may have come up short in sheer fundamentals.
“If you look at the ’01 season up until two years ago, it was a great defense,” Gilbert said. “Starting two years ago, they weren’t playing like a Georgia defense. Guys weren’t tackling; guys weren’t playing defense. They just weren’t playing football.”
And while change isn’t always simple, former defensive tackle Corvey Irvin admits it is occasionally necessary.
“All those guys are great coaches,” Irvin said. “I don’t know about the situation there, and I’m not going to say they deserved it, but maybe it was time for a change.”