ATHENS, Ga. — A new season technically began nearly two months ago, but for most of Georgia’s players, Tuesday’s start to spring practice was the first day it felt like 2009.
There was no Knowshon Moreno in the backfield, Mohamed Massaquoi wasn’t lined up wide, and Matthew Stafford was no longer under center — although he was watching from the sideline.
Stafford and former Georgia linebacker Dannell Ellerbe watched the Bulldogs’ first practice, making a surreal day just a bit more odd than usual, but also providing the perfect backdrop for a new beginning.
“It was weird seeing Matthew in the stands,” coach Mark Richt said. “It was weird seeing Dannell Ellerbe just watching. It was weird for him and weird for us, too. But that’s just college football. You know after a certain amount of time, guys are gone and other guys have to rise to the occasion.”
Tuesday’s practice wasn’t exactly a make-or-break day for the players hoping to fill the voids left by Stafford, Ellerbe and company, but it was the coaches’ first chance to see the Bulldogs in action since they ended the 2008 season with a New Year’s Day victory over Michigan State in the Capital One Bowl.
Players were in shorts Tuesday and didn’t go through any contact drills — that will wait until Saturday — but the energy on the field was a nice addition to the offseason.
“We’ve been putting a lot of hard work in so far, and everybody’s ready to get to the football portion of it,” said Joe Cox, the fifth-year senior who may take over for Stafford as the starting quarterback this season. “Everybody was shaking off some rust, but it was a good learning day and everybody had a lot of energy.”
Cox expected Tuesday to be a turning point in his career, the first time he stepped onto the practice field as the leader of Georgia’s offense. After going through the typical drills, however, it turned out it was a day just like any other.
“It was a little bit different, but it wasn’t as bad as I thought it would be,” Cox said. “It really turned out that I got as many reps as I did last year, it was just with a different group of guys.”
The transition from Stafford to Cox at quarterback is the most obvious change from last season, but Richt said there isn’t a lot of difference on the field.
“Joe’s never had a problem stepping into any huddle any time and taking control,” he said. “It’s not very unnatural for him at all to step in there and be the leader, be the guy in control.”
While the first day of spring practice was a simple transition for Cox, things weren’t quite so smooth for Georgia’s three true freshmen.
Offensive lineman Dallas Lee got his first dose of coach Stacy Searels’ wrath Tuesday, but he at least had a familiar face on the sideline for support. Lee’s coach at Buford High, Jess Simpson was at practice and had some helpful advice for his former player.
“No matter what happens,” Simpson told Lee, “It’s going to be OK.”
Simpson was on hand for Ben Jones’ first practice last year, and he told Lee that Georgia’s starting center struggled just as much in his first taste of action, too.
Of course, Lee was the only one with his head on a swivel.
Freshmen quarterbacks Aaron Murray and Zach Mettenberger spent most of Tuesday’s practice just trying to figure out what to do next and asking plenty of questions.
“Their heads were spinning a little bit today because it was the first time they were in the huddle and had to call plays and make reads at a game pace,” Cox said. “I got a lot of questions, but I like that. I like helping them out.”
Richt said the two quarterbacks went through the typical first-day jitters, and needed help with everything from footwork and progressions to the basic lingo to use in the huddle.
Despite their early struggles, Richt said both Mettenberger and Murray look to be quick studies, and he’s excited to see what they’ll be able to do by the end of the spring.
“Coach (Mike) Bobo is extremely pleased with them in the meeting rooms and how quickly they’re picking things up,” Richt said. “But to take it from the board to practice is not easy for those guys.”
Depleted on defense
Georgia knew it would be shorthanded at defensive end with injuries sidelining Rod Battle, Neland Ball and Cornelius Washington for the spring, but the depth chart took another hit Tuesday when freshman Jeremy Longo sat out with an illness.
That left just three healthy scholarship players, one of which was Kiante Tripp, who was practicing for the first time at defensive end since moving from the offensive line last month.
“It feels good being back at my home position,” Tripp said. “It felt natural. I didn’t make too many mistakes. Just trying to weave my way back into the position, not trying to be too flashy. Just trying to get the system down.”
That was a sentiment Richt repeated after the practice, but despite the lack of technical brilliance on Tripp’s part, his head coach was pleased with the effort.
“The first thing coach Richt told me when I moved over was, ‘I don’t care what your technique looks like, all I want you to do is just sell out and give it all you’ve got,’” Tripp said. “That’s what I’ve been trying to do.”
No phone, no news
Richt took a vacation to Mexico for spring break, and before he left he decided to turn his cell phone off and enjoy the time away.
“If something really important happens,” he said, “I guess somebody will tell me about it.”
Apparently Richt’s son, Jon, didn’t get the message.
Jon Richt, who was a freshman quarterback at Clemson last season, took the opportunity to inform his head coach that he intended to transfer, and Mark Richt didn’t get the news until several days later.
“I knew he was thinking about it,” Mark Richt said, “but before I left town I thought he was going to go through spring ball and then assess things.”
Richt said he supports his son’s decision and said Jon was hoping to transfer to a FCS or Division II school so that he could play immediately without sitting out a year. Ideally, Richt said, Jon would like to be a bit closer to home, too.
“He was saying he wanted to be in the state of Georgia, and I think that would be his preference,” Mark Richt said. “But a few things are floating around a little bit and I think he’s going to listen to other opportunities.”
While Jon’s hoping to find his way back to Georgia, his father is more than happy to put to rest any rumors of a family reunion with the Bulldogs.
“No,” Mark Richt said, “we’re still decided he needs to go away to college.”
Green gets through
For most of the offseason, wide receiver A.J. Green wasn’t sure how much action he would see in spring practice. Green, who led Georgia in receiving last year as a freshman, has been nursing a groin injury since early in the 2008 season, and his priority for the offseason was rest and rehab.
As it turned out, however, Green was a full go in Georgia’s first day of practice Tuesday, running routes and making cuts without much problem.
“It feels good,” Green said. “I did everything (Tuesday). It’s a little sore, but it’s doing better, much better.”
The key, however, will be how the groin feels after a night’s rest, and Green’s level of soreness as the week progresses will dictate how much work he’ll get each day.
“We’re going to see how it feels and see if I can still go like I did (Tuesday),” he said.