JACKSONVILLE, Fla. -- There’s been a theme to Mark Richt’s public utterances this month, both on and off the field.
“I’m really not going to be interested in talking too much about next year,” Richt said in early December.
He has done his best to carry that to his players, not wanting them to look past the Gator Bowl and Nebraska.
But with very little prodding, Georgia’s players, and occasionally Richt himself, do talk about next year. When they do, some unbridled optimism seeps through.
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“We’re gonna do big things next year,” said junior linebacker Ramik Wilson after confirming he’ll be part of the team again rather than enter the NFL draft. “We’ve gotta stay together, keep improving, and we should win every game next year. There’s no doubt in my mind.”
There might be doubts in the minds of others, who point out big things were expected this year of the Bulldogs, who finished 8-4. But injuries were a major factor in that record. And Wilson’s big talk is supported by the 2014 schedule, which is very manageable, and this fact: Georgia is due to return 17 of the 22 players who will start in next week’s bowl game, including quarterback Hutson Mason, whose long apprenticeship to Aaron Murray ended two games early. Throw in place-kicker Marshall Morgan, a first-team All-SEC pick, and the punting combination of Collin Barber and Adam Erickson, and that number grows to 19 starters.
That number doesn’t include Malcolm Mitchell, perhaps the team’s best receiver, who tore his ACL on the second series of the season. It also doesn’t include receiver Justin Scott-Wesley or tailback Keith Marshall, key contributors who tore their ACLs in the fifth game of the season. Those three are expected to be healthy for next season, with Mitchell a particularly huge lift.
All this is the reason Georgia officials and Richt did not make any changes after an eight-win regular season.
It’s why, Richt reiterated Saturday, he believed continuity was best, rather than making big changes with his beleaguered defense.
“That’s exactly right,” Richt said. “I believe in these guys.”
There’s always the chance for a surprise departure or two. But with Wilson’s decision, no player appears to be serious about going pro. It’s very conceivable that for the first time since 2009, Georgia will not start a freshman in its season opener.
So assuming nothing unforeseen, this is what Georgia is due to return next year:
The new starting quarterback. Mason long thought his first start would be the 2014 season opener against Clemson. Instead he gets the final two of this season, a chance to get the rust and nerves off.
Star tailbacks and receivers. Todd Gurley will be back, along with a presumably healthy Mitchell. In all, Georgia is set to return its four leading rushers and four leading receivers.
Morgan, who has missed just two field goals this year and no extra points. Georgia’s special teams were porous this year, but Morgan wasn’t part of the problem.
Ten defensive starters. Yes, the unit struggled this year, ranking eighth in the SEC in yards allowed and 11th in scoring defense. And the return of 10 defensive starters for the 2012 season actually saw a regression.
But as junior cornerback Damian Swann said, “It can only get better.”
Here’s what Georgia loses:
Arthur Lynch, the first-team all-SEC tight end. Lynch (24 catches for 390 yards and five touchdowns) will be missed. But if sophomore Jay Rome (nine catches for 99 yards) is healthy, he can be a difference-maker too.
Three offensive line starters. Left tackle Kenarious Gates and guards Dallas Lee and Chris Burnette were basically three-year starters. None will be high NFL draft picks, but experience is experience.
The difference this year is every potential candidate to start has seen playing time this year. Mark Beard and Kolton Houston have started, and Watts Dantlzer and Brandon Kublanow have seen spot playing time.
“Even though we’re losing three starters, we have a lot of guys with experience and a lot of young talent,” said tackle John Theus, one of the two returning starters, along with center David Andrews. “I’m really looking forward to next year and those guys and seeing what they can do.”
Finally, Garrison Smith is the lone senior starter on defense. Smith, fourth on the team in tackles and second in sacks, has been one of Georgia’s most dependable and underrated defensive players.
But there’s plenty of rising talent left on the line, from junior Ray Drew (six sacks) to nose tackle Chris Mayes. The run defense was unexpectedly solid this year.
All this isn’t to say that Georgia fans should reserve hotel rooms in Dallas for the national championship game in January 2015. Or even Atlanta a month earlier for the SEC title game. The defense remains a question mark, injuries could happen again, and it’s a long offseason, full of potential trouble.
But when the Gator Bowl is over, win or lose, it’s a good bet Richt will be very eager to talk about next year.