ATHENS, Ga. -- Isaiah Crowell stood with his fellow tailbacks, off in a corner of the new practice field. Malcolm Mitchell made a few nice catches, although not without criticism. John Jenkins stood out among the other defensive linemen, unique in his number and girth.
For the first time, all the members of this year’s Georgia football team -- the heralded rookies, the veterans of last year’s struggles, the embattled coaching staff -- took the field Thursday.
They opened preseason practice under a “smoking hot” sun, as head coach Mark Richt referred to it earlier in the day. But on the subject of warmth, it was Richt’s hot seat that got perhaps more attention.
The sight of Crowell, Mitchell, Jenkins and the other newcomers practicing may have signified a new era for the program, even a re-birth.
But when players were brought to meet the media earlier in the day, many of them fielded questions about Richt’s future.
“I don’t like it, but you can’t control what people say,” junior tight end Orson Charles said. “I wouldn’t want to play for anybody else except Coach Richt and (tight ends coach John) Lilly and (offensive coordinator Mike) Bobo. I don’t want nobody (else) at Georgia while I’m here. But I feel we have the talent to bring it back.”
At least some of Richt’s fellow coaches seem to agree. The Bulldogs came in at No. 22 in the preseason USA Today coaches poll, which was also released Thursday.
It could be viewed as a sign of the decline of the program that a No. 22 ranking was seen as a nice surprise.
After all, this same Georgia team began No. 1 in both major polls just three years ago.
But the Bulldogs were also unranked for the final three months of last year, are coming off a 6-7 season and lost stars like A.J. Green and Justin Houston to the NFL. So when Richt was told his team was No. 22, he called it “a good sign for the program. ... That’s a good sign of respect, that the coaches feel like Georgia’s a top 25 team.”
Junior defensive end and former Northside standout Abry Jones admitted there was “a little bit of surprise” the Bulldogs were ranked.
“I think it means a lot of people think highly of the Georgia tradition, think highly of Coach Richt and the Georgia coaching staff, he can still get us back on track and have a good year,” Jones said.
It remains to be seen just how good a season the Bulldogs need to have in order for Richt, entering his 11th year, to at least make it a dozen. Athletics director Greg McGarity has said he would like to see “improvement.”
But Georgia players seem to be taking ownership of Richt’s job status.
“It’s extreme motivation to hear people say that Coach Richt might be on the hot seat,” Jones said. “For us to be players, to kind of put him in that kind of position, gives us extreme motivation to play well and show what kind of coach he really is.”
Senior center Ben Jones answered “definitely” when asked if Richt’s job status motivated the players.
“I don’t think there’s a better coach out there,” Ben Jones said. “So people saying that, it hurts my heart, because he poured so much into this program. It’s not just all about football with him. He’s trying to make you a better man. He’s showing you the ropes to be successful in life.”
During his news conference, Richt was typically low-key when asked about the importance of the season. But the night before, the eve of practice, Richt gathered the team together in the meeting room and gave what players called a rousing speech.
“He was pumped up, and energized, motivating. I walked out of the room like, ‘Wow,’ ” quarterback Aaron Murray said.
“I know as players we’re ready to go, but Coach Richt is ready to fight somebody right now. I talked to a few of the players, and they loved it, too. I know he has the right mindset. He’s ready to work, just like the other coaches are.”
But Murray wouldn’t go into specifics.
“What happens in the team meeting room stays in the team meeting room,” Murray said with a smile.
Charles, however, revealed one detail: Richt passed along, in Charles’ words, that “people around the country are not thinking anything of Georgia.”
“And we’re here, we’re working hard,” Charles said. “We’re gonna go out there and compete, and we’re gonna show people that we’re back.”