Georgia’s numbers problem were a non-factor

semerson@macon.comDecember 27, 2012 

ORLANDO -- Remember how Georgia’s lack of scholarship players -- about 15 under the NCAA limit -- was supposed to be a huge obstacle this year? A big detriment?

Well, it wasn’t.

Maybe it was luck. It certainly wasn’t by design. But in the end, a scholarship-depleted Georgia football team was still good enough to come within 5 yards of being in the BCS championship game.

“We’re still here; we’re still standing strong, regardless of what happened that offseason,” sophomore receiver Malcolm Mitchell said. “Just had to get together as a team and work.”

The attrition that hit Georgia after last season was remarkable. Several players transferred, and five more -- including star tailback Isaiah Crowell -- were dismissed. By the start of the 2012 season, the team had just 69 players who had arrived at campus on scholarship -- and four of them were suspended for two to four games to start the season.

But other than Crowell, none of the players who had left the program had a chance to be an opening-game starter.

So the key would be whether injuries became a factor at key positions. And they didn’t. Even when the team lost two of its top receivers (Michael Bennett and Marlon Brown) to season-ending knee injuries, the team was able to survive and keep a redshirt on Blake Tibbs.

In fact, consider this: One team in the SEC championship game was ready to burn a redshirt for a freshman receiver, and it wasn’t Georgia. Alabama almost did it for Chris Black, then ultimately didn’t.

Head coach Mark Richt, who before the season said the worry about the lack of scholarships was overrated, ended up being vindicated.

“We didn’t have a lot of injuries,” Richt said. “We did have a couple ACLs, as we know, and Abry (Jones), we lost for a good bit of time. But overall, we didn’t have a massive amount of injuries. You don’t play 85 guys in any one season. You might play a core of about 35 guys, 40 guys. So we were blessed to have guys stay healthy, and we just played well together.”

It also helped that walk-ons, or former walk-ons, filled the gaps. Merritt Hall became the starting fullback, Connor Norman started the first two games at safety, receiver Rhett McGowan caught nine passes, and players like Blake Sailors, Kosta Vavlas and Norman starred on special teams.

That doesn’t mean the Bulldogs are ready to let the situation carry over into next year. The team is scrambling to sign a class of more than 30 players in order to shore up the scholarship numbers.

“We certainly want to get our numbers back up, and we may have had a little depth issue here or there (this year),” Richt said. “But overall it worked out pretty good.”

Could the attrition actually have helped? Junior tight end Arthur Lynch looks back on the offseason and thinks some of it was a weeding-out process. The players who remained, according to Lynch, understood that they had to play through minor injuries and do what it takes to keep the team together.

“You can’t win unless you understand what’s at stake. The guys that stayed, the guys fought through a lot of bumps and bruises. Whereas in the past I don’t think a lot of kids would do that,” Lynch said. “A lot of people made sacrifices, not only the coaches but us as players, put our necks on the line. I know Jarvis (Jones) played hurt a lot of the games. And played out of his mind in those games. Situations like that put us in position to be able to push through that, in terms of depth issues.”

Georgia still ultimately fell short of its goal, but it wasn’t the depth that brought down the Bulldogs. And even in Crowell’s place, freshmen Todd Gurley and Keith Marshall proved to be better.

Looking to next year, one website picked Georgia to start next year in the top 10 once again. That’s predicated on a pretty strong offense, returning nearly everybody.

But Gurley, perhaps remembering last offseason, wasn’t even thinking about it yet.

“That’s like freaking eight months from now,” Gurley said. “I mean, you never know what can happen between that time period.”

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