Staff scrambles to fill void contacting high school players
By DAVID HALE
ATHENS, Ga. — Bowl practice began Saturday, but the past two weeks have been all about the future for Georgia.
Head coach Mark Richt announced 12 days ago that three defensive coaches wouldn’t return in 2010. Since then, the rest of the coaching staff has been scrambling on the recruiting trail, talking to recruits and easing the concerns of commitments.
“It’s more of a staff thing,” recruiting coordinator Rodney Garner said. “We’re (short-handed). We’re three guys down. Everybody’s just lending a hand.”
The open contact period for recruits began hours after Georgia’s win over Georgia Tech to wrap up the regular season, and Richt dismissed three defensive coaches, including defensive coordinator Willie Martinez, four days later.
Garner, Richt and Georgia’s other coaches have been scrambling to talk to recruits and assure the team’s 18 commitments that the future was still bright in Athens.
That job wasn’t simple, but Garner said the changes on the defensive staff haven’t shaken confidence in commitments as much as outside observers might have assumed. The rumors about Martinez’s future persisted throughout the season, and most players knew changes could be in store.
“I think with the media, those rumors were out there all year,” Garner said. “I don’t know how shocked everyone was. The kids initially asked about it, but a lot of that was stirred by people calling them, asking what they thought.”
That doesn’t mean recruits don’t have plenty of questions — with the first and foremost surrounding who might come in as replacements for the dismissed coaches.
Georgia has been cautious to not allow information to leak out about potential defensive coordinators. While rumors about Alabama’s Kirby Smart and Kansas State’s Vic Koenning have made the rounds, Garner said the only certainty he is aware of — and in turn, the only information he passes along to recruits — is that Richt knows what he is doing.
“My biggest thing that I stressed to all the kids was that Coach Richt is here, he’s the leader, and this is his program. He’s going to lead Georgia back,” Garner said. “You just have to have faith and confidence that if he made that decision, he’s doing what’s best for the program long-term, and whoever he hires, it’s going to be a person he thinks can take the program to that next level.”
So far, Garner said the response has been immensely positive from recruits, with Georgia even adding its 19th commitment last week. when linebacker Zander Ogletree — brother of Bulldogs commitment Alec Ogletree — announced he planned to play for Georgia next season, despite the changes to the coaching staff.
While Garner said he hasn’t been able to pass along a timetable on when a replacement for the departed coaches might be hired, he is promising that whoever gets the jobs will hit the ground running, and that has been good enough for most of the players with whom he has spoken.
“As soon as someone is hired, ‘That person is going to be in your home, he’s going to be building relationships with you, and we’re going to get that bond created as quickly as possible,’ ” Garner said of his message to recruits. “You just have to have faith in Coach Richt, and obviously his track record speaks for itself.”
Of course, beyond the question of who will replacement Martinez, the bigger issue for many recruits might be what system will replacement the one Georgia has employed for the past nine years, first under Brian VanGorder and then under Martinez.
That’s another question Garner said he can’t completely answer, but he is certain that the athletes Georgia is recruiting are capable of working under virtually any system that might be put in place under the new defensive coordinator.
“Schematically, everyone now is so versatile. We’re a 4-3 base under Coach VanGorder and Coach Martinez, but we did some 3-4 stuff,” Garner said. “We did multiple stuff. I think whomever or whatever coach or system goes, I think the personnel, the nucleus is here. You may have to go out and tweak it here or there if you change it a whole lot. We’re pretty versatile as is, so the guys are feeling fine.”
Georgia had 16 recruits in Athens this weekend for the team’s annual gala. Coaches will split time this week between bowl practice and recruiting travel before the NCAA’s mandated dead period, which lasts from Saturday night through Jan. 4. After that, it will be a mad dash to National Signing Day, but, by then, Garner hopes many of the questions already will have been answered.