ATHENS, Ga. — Mark Richt had been loathe to make changes. Even as the losses piled up, the Georgia head coach kept up the public mantra to “stay the course.”
Then came a loss at Colorado, and Richt’s mind changed. The return of the star player had not ended the losing streak. His team was 1-4. He finally resolved to be proactive.
There were no drastic changes, such as staff or major personnel shake-ups. But during the past three weeks, the Bulldogs have altered the formula on several fronts:
The practices became more physical; they tinkered with personnel, especially in the secondary and on the offensive line; and Richt asked assistant coaches to “simplify” things for the players.
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“Part of what I wanted to make sure of as a head coach after that Colorado game is we weren’t going to confuse them,” said Richt, adding that the changes occurred on both sides of the ball. “I wanted the offensive and defensive plan to be simple enough to where they would know what to do and could play full-speed without hesitation and without making a mistake that could’ve cost us.”
It remains to be seen whether Richt’s moves saved the season or merely ended a losing streak. The next two games, against Kentucky and Florida, figure to decide that.
But, at the moment, the Bulldogs are 3-4 and back in the hunt for the SEC East Division title. And while the two-game winning streak has come against the division’s two worst teams, Tennessee and Vanderbilt, the Bulldogs won each in convincing routs.
The wins, say the coaches, validated the decision not to panic but just to tinker.
“We felt (early in the season) we were close and we were getting better,” said offensive coordinator Mike Bobo, a focus of much of the fan frustration. “We weren’t executing on all cylinders. But we were just having mistakes at inopportune times. You know, a turnover here, a turnover there. Not finishing on a drive. We weren’t full-speed offensively. But we felt we were getting close. We felt like we were getting better every week.”
On the other side of the ball, first-year defensive coordinator Todd Grantham disagreed a bit with Richt on just how much things were simplified. The way Grantham sees it, the players might be picking up his 3-4 scheme after weeks of repetition.
“I think everybody kind of understands things at a different rate,” Grantham said. “You know, some guys have to do it a little bit. Some guys have to get it right off the bat. I think each guy’s a little different, really. But I think the more you do things (helps) — and I think the biggest thing is we’ve been more consistent in our teaching.”
There is universal agreement that the practices were ratcheted up. Star wide receiver A.J. Green, whose return from a suspension was spoiled by the loss at Colorado, said it’s not just physical practices but the competitive aspect as well.
“Man, every play, three-on-three, two-on-two, everything is live,” Green said. “We’re just smashing. Ones against ones — there’s no taking a break — we’re just competing all day. So it’s fun. You can really see, it’s really showing on Saturdays the way we’re opening games.”
Indeed, the past two games Georgia has jumped out to early leads. That reversed the trend of the four losses, when the defense allowed an opening-drive touchdown each week.
Wide receiver Kris Durham credited the coaches for bringing “a different mentality” to practices.
“We were being, I guess, what people would call a soft team,” Durham said. “And when you watched film it was true, you can’t beat around the bush. I mean, you see what you see. Anyone could see that. So they brought back and showed us, ‘Hey, this is the way we won in the past. This is how it’s going to be.’ ”
And that’s how it’s been the past two games. The Bulldogs hope it carries on to Lexington, Jacksonville and beyond.