ATHENS — It was only three weeks into fall practice last year, but Mark Richt was already faced with a decision that would eventually define his season.
He looked around the practice fields, and more than a quarter of his team was dressed in green non-contact jerseys. He looked at his depth chart, and he saw no depth. He considered the implications of more injuries, and he flinched.
The scrimmages during fall practice had always been competitive and hard-hitting. This time, however, Richt didn’t even have his players tackle to the ground. His job was to get his team prepared for battle, and he had failed.
“When practice was over, I almost got sick,” Richt said. “I almost threw up because I knew that wasn’t going to get us ready to play.”
The next day, Richt tried to improve the energy. There was tackling, but there were significantly fewer reps.
For the first time in his coaching career, Richt decided the risk of injuries outweighed the importance of practice. As the season progressed, the balance between keeping players healthy and getting them ready for the games grew increasingly difficult to find, and the team suffered.
“When so many players get hurt, you might be down to your last guy that you think really knows what to do, and you think, ‘If I lose this guy, then I’ve got nobody that knows what to do,’ ” Richt said. “So then you think, ‘Do I practice the way that I know will make me better fundamentally, but there’s also risk in that or do I make sure I get them through practice and get them to the game without exposing them to a practice injury?’ ”
In all, more than 30 players, including nearly a dozen full- or part-time starters, missed time with injuries last season. Some were freak accidents, like Trinton Sturdivant’s torn knee ligaments in the spring. Some were typical wear and tear, like Jeremy Lomax’s lingering turf toe. The results, however, were always the same. The healthy players were overworked and under-prepared.
Richt saw the practice sessions and knew his team wasn’t ready to compete at the level he expected. The rest of the country saw the same thing on game day.
Without physical practices and proper tackling drills, the Bulldogs’ defense struggled against even marginal opponents. What began with a dismal performance against Alabama in which the defense allowed 31 points in the first half quickly spiraled downhill. A big win over LSU came with plenty of warning signs. A week later, there was a blowout at the hands of rival Florida. There was last-gasp victories against struggling Kentucky and Auburn, followed by the most visible example of Georgia’s failed preparation — a 45-42 loss to Georgia Tech in which the Yellow Jackets’ players seemed to bounce off Georgia tackles with ease.
It was the final straw for Richt.
By the time bowl practice began, things were different. Richt was no longer concerned about injuries. He wanted to get back to basics, to revive the intensity that had made his programs so successful in the past. The result was a manhandling of Michigan State by a defense that looked far more like the dominant attack Richt had hoped for all season.
It was a spark, and it continued into the offseason.
“The workouts, everybody’s been saying they’ve been that much harder this year, and the team, everybody’s been fighting,” wide receiver Michael Moore said.
It’s a fight Richt said he hopes will continue into this season. Fall practice begins in one week, and the list of players returning to full health dwarfs handful of Bulldogs currently lost to injuries.
Wide receiver Kris Durham and offensive linemen Tanner Strickland and Austin Long will all miss the upcoming season, but beyond that, the Bulldogs have had a relatively pain-free offseason. Meanwhile, several veterans are nearing a return to action, and by the time those early scrimmages begin again this year, Richt hopes there won’t be any tough decisions to make.
“We hope to practice the way we’ve practiced every year since I’ve been at Georgia, and that is to practice tackling by tackling and to practice goal line by getting on the goal line, practice inside run by getting after it full speed, full contact,” Richt said. “I hope I’m not put in that situation again to have to make that decision, but if I don’t flinch, we’re going to keep practicing the way you’ve got to practice. Hopefully, we learned a good lesson.”