Mailbag: Change is afoot, on the gridiron and the court

semerson@macon.comJanuary 23, 2014 

Georgia Pruitts Challenge Football

Georgia defensive coordinator Jeremy Pruitt, left, has focused on slowing things down in practice in order to implement his system.

DAVE TULIS — AP

Kudos to Coach Mark Richt for bringing a jolt of energy to the program. What was the consensus among your sources regarding Richt's desire for 'continuity'? Was there a sense that Richt was making a mistake by staying the course? Finally, did you or any of your insiders imagine Richt would make such a dramatic change with the recent hires given the opportunity?
- Dave Marler

My sense is Richt was genuine in wanting that continuity. If he really had wanted to make a change, why wait until more than a week after the bowl? But when Todd Grantham got another job offer, it doesn’t appear Richt fought to keep him, and decided to use it as an opportunity. When the defensive coordinator of the nation’s third-ranked defense, which just won the national championship, is willing to come on board, it’s a pretty easy call.

Richt deserves credit for pouncing on the opportunity, and closing the deal on Pruitt. He also deserves credit for leaving his comfort zone and hiring two guys recently in the high school ranks. But credit also goes to Will Friend and Mike Bobo, who have the relationships to be able to grease the wheels of those hires.

On paper, it appears Richt and Georgia have lucked into an upgrade on the defensive side, though that also depends on what happens with the remaining hires. Kirk Olivadotti and Chris Wilson did a good job and were welcome back, but just got better, more lucrative offers.

With the sudden resurgence of the basketball team what kind of season do you think they will end up having? With almost the whole team back next season I see the potential for a NCAA tourney team next year.
- Sean Davidson

Honestly, I’m not sure what to think at this point. Coming out of that loss at George Washington, I didn’t see a team capable of winning many SEC games. But the win at Missouri changed everything. This team has confidence now, and if it can keep playing this way it can roll up 10-to-12 SEC wins. (The web site realtimerpi.com, which projects future games based on past results, currently projects Georgia to finish 10-8 in SEC play.)

But this Georgia team also still has a small margin for error, and a bad loss or two could derail that confidence. On a pure basketball basis, however, some good things are happening that point to being able to sustain this: Kenny Gaines finding his stroke, Marcus Thornton emerging as a good rebounder and post defender, and Mark Fox finding a rotation that works.

Does UGA basketball have a legitimate chance to make the NCAA tournament?
- Robert Daniel

Let’s not go crazy here. The simple answer is no, barring 14-15 wins in SEC play, including some more quality wins. And other than Saturday’s trip to Kentucky, there aren’t any other games against likely NCAA foes, at least until the SEC tournament. Georgia’s RPI rank as of Thursday is 133, which is a huge improvement over 260, its rank entering the Missouri game. But 133 isn’t good enough for the NIT.

What Georgia is working towards at this point, to get back to Sean’s comment, is something good entering next season. Only one player, senior forward Donte’ Williams, is set to leave, so if this team finishes well and has no attrition, it would enter next year with a reasonable expectations to make an NCAA run.

Can anything in the strength & conditioning regimen be fine-tuned to ward off future ACL injuries?
- Andy Johnston

I actually delved into this for a story last November, which you can read here. I spoke to Dr. Bert Mandelbaum, an orthopedic surgeon in California who has researched sports ACL injuries, and preventive possibilities. Rather than synthesize it here I encourage you to read the story. Otherwise:

I’m not a trainer or a medical professional, but Mandelbaum did say that he doesn't think strength and conditioning has too much to do with it. An ACL joint is going to tear no matter how strong your knee may be, as there's no way to go in there and strengthen the actual joint. And as Mandelbaum pointed out, most ACL injuries in football are happening without contact, and have more to do with planting the leg wrong.

It bears noting then that Georgia’s offensive and defensive linemen held up pretty well last year, and they’re the ones who are in the most physical contact with the opponent. The ACL injuries were from skill-position players, and the vast majority were in non-contact situations, which goes to Mandelbaum’s point. And that’s not a particular failing of Georgia or anybody else. Mandelbaum just feels that football in general – at all levels – is behind the times in preventive exercises.

This may be one of those things where years from now we find out that steps really could have been taken. But at the moment it doesn’t seem like Georgia is behind the times. Ron Courson and company are doing what everyone else seems to be doing.

Seth, am I wrong in thinking that our drug policy is different than other schools in both testing frequency and severity of penalty? I think most of us would gladly accept the stronger drug policy if UGA would make a semi-professional attempt at communicating the policy and why UGA is proud of it. I watched two ESPN talking heads discuss the Josh Harvey-Clemons suspension and the primary topic was how Georgia always struggles keeping its players out of trouble. That is a failure of UGA communications.

The message ought to be that Georgia doesn’t back down from frequent and widespread testing and specific and severe penalties. In this, UGA is very different from the rest of the league and that should be the message. In eight months, we’re going to play Clemson and South Carolina on national television with JHC suspended and Richt is going to get asked why he can’t keep our team out of trouble. There’s a way to answer that question that reflects positively on UGA and perhaps pressures other schools to strengthen their policies. Is there anyone at UGA who can help Richt craft an answer?
- Paul Smith, St. Louis

Your concerns are understandable. But it’s just not in the nature of Richt or the UGA administration to jump out there and be that vocal. It’s just not the way they do things. Could that change? Perhaps. But this is the least defensive athletics department I’ve been around, and usually that’s a good thing, but on some matters a few defensive shots would be productive.

There could also be other considerations: UGA takes the privacy aspect of its drug policy very seriously. That’s why you never see Richt, a coach or Greg McGarity publicly confirming anything when it involves an in-house test. They only comment when something is public record.

One modest suggestion I would have had, back in December when Harvey-Clemons’ bowl suspension was announced: A media member or two could have been leaked the fact that it was a four-gamer, and not just for the bowl, and that the initial “reports” of it being academic-related were wrong. Instead, it took another month for that to come out, and when it did it appeared that Harvey-Clemons was in trouble for a third time, when in fact it was just a continuation of the second time.

Georgia has pushed the SEC for a uniform drug policy. But that’s a non-starter with most other schools. So Georgia has to decide whether it wants to hope all these other schools change their mind, or change its own policy. And I see no policy change, with Richt, McGarity and Jere Morehead all publicly in lockstep on this one.

After coach Grantham took the Louisville job, Chase Vasser commented on Twitter that "GA finally will have the best players on D playing this year." Then, after Coach Pruitt was hired, Vasser tweeted that he would have loved to have played for the new DC. Do you have any insight regarding Vasser's implication that playing time did not necessarily go to the best defensive players last year?
- Terry Mann, Atlanta

Vasser’s comments were certainly eye-opening, though understandable, considering he hardly got off the bench his final year. He wasn’t alone. You need only look at the rotations, or lack thereof at some spots, and can see where a lot of players were frustrated.

Grantham, coming from an NFL background, was used to finding the guys he wanted to use, and not going deep on the depth chart. There was also a reluctance this year to use a dime package, which would have put more players on the field.

Current players are all getting a fresh start, and that very well could benefit some guys. But not everyone can play, so players being upset with playing time is going to occur pretty much every season.

Why doesn't Mike Bobo get recognition and money he deserves?
- Tom Freeman

It depends on who you think isn’t recognizing him. This past year he was named the offensive coordinator of the year by 247Sports – in the country, not just the SEC – and the year before that he was one of four finalists for the Broyles Award, which goes to the nation’s top assistant. (This past year he wasn’t even among the semifinalists, strangely.)

As for money, Bobo did get a big raise last year (up to $550,000), and I wouldn’t rule out another one this year. Grantham’s departure bailed Georgia out of an awkward situation: Bobo being paid substantially less than the coordinator whose unit hasn’t performed as well the past two seasons. Even though Priutt is earning the same $850,000 salary, he’s coming off a year in which he clearly earned it.

On a side note, I couldn’t help but notice that Bobo and Pruitt were sitting next to each other at last Saturday’s basketball game, acting chummy and yucking it up. I don’t ever remember Bobo and Grantham doing that, especially not the past couple years.

Have you heard any chatter about making Christian Robinson a position coach? I know we are probably targeting coaches with experience, but we did promote McClendon in a similar fashion. Has there been any discussion about other former Dawgs coming back to coach? My dream scenario would be to lure Pollack away from ESPN (although he does a great job there) and bring in Hines Ward as well. They would be incredible coaches and recruiters.
- Eric White

Robinson is going to be a full-time coach somewhere soon, I just wouldn’t expect it to be at Georgia this season. It’s quite a leap to go from player to GA to full-time coach within two years. Although you are right, McClendon also made a quick jump, though he spent two years as a GA, after one year pursuing a pro career.

You can probably scratch Pollack and Ward as future candidates, unless they really, REALLY want to go into coaching. They both have promising broadcast careers that are paying them well, and they don’t have to deal with the stuff a college assistant coach has to.

Watched several FSU games and it struck me how well coached their defense played. What player benefits the most from the hire?
- David St. Louis

Everyone in the secondary, if for no other reason than a fresh start, and a fresh approach. Otherwise, I’d point to the backup linebackers, where Pruitt could be more creative in getting them on the field, mainly by using more diverse packages.

1. Why UGA hasn't offer Carver-Columbus DB Kiante Walton? UGA needs another DB, and it looks like Tavon Ross won't flip. Plus UGA is his dream offer....2. speaking of Carver-Columbus...What round do you think Isaiah Crowell will get picked in the NFL Draft?
- Dee Brown

I checked in with David Mitchell, the Ledger-Enquirer's prep reporter, and he agrees that Walter has good size and speed (6-foot, 195 pounds, 4.4-4.5 speed), and was the best cover guy in Carver's secondary this season. He's also picked up some late offers, including from Missouri, Kansas State, BYU, in addition to an earlier one from Vanderbilt. But the top-tier schools haven't pulled the trigger yet.

As for Crowell, I’d expect him to be a third-day pick, and near the tail end, unless he dazzles at workouts. Character is obviously going to be a concern for NFL teams, and solid tailbacks are a dime a dozen. Someone will take a chance on him, though. Maybe the Raiders.

Do you find introductory pressers for Coordinators to be…awkward? I understand the level of media coverage a program like UGA gets for major hires, but it seems to open the door for too much camera time and too many sound bites. Sitting a person who is trained in how to deal with the media in front of cameras and microphones is risky. In front of coaches, it leads to a lot of potholes. It seems to degenerate into a backslapping, Kumbaya moment of unity and peace and harmony…it just seems contrived and results in something being said that shouldn’t.

As a member of the media, do you think they are necessary? I find them cringe worthy and useless.
- Scott C. Davis

Frankly I’d be fine with not doing the press conference, as long as I got to speak to Pruitt. The problem is these days there is so much interest, and so much more media, that Georgia and most every other program on its level feels it has to hold a presser to accommodate everyone.

But it also helps Georgia drum up publicity, by getting Pruitt sound bites on TV around the state and region, and by putting the entire presser on its web site. That won’t change: The soon-to-arrive SEC Network will be looking for content.

It’s a different world. I remember … cue up Abe Simpson voice … when Brian VanGorder left and Willie Martinez was promoted. UGA just got Martinez on the phone for me, and I had a nice long chat with him. I also had a long talk with Kirby Smart around that time, when Smart was hired to the staff. Would I prefer it be that way now? Oh, sure. But it’s a time gone by. (Old man voice.)

I know there's been no mention of Georgia's assistant coaching hires, so we can't rate them. But from the teams Georgia plays - who has done well in the "off-season" with hiring coordinators, and whose hires are more head-scratchers? Will the Florida offense suddenly resemble Oregon? Will Kiffin make it out of Tennessee in one piece next October when Alabama goes calling?
- Bob Ho, Tucker

Maybe the biggest offseason move involving a Georgia opponent was Clemson holding onto Chad Morris. South Carolina also didn’t see any coordinator changes.

One change that could have an effect, and a good one for Georgia, is Arkansas having to replace its defensive coordinator again. That visit to Little Rock sets up as a potentially tough one for the Bulldogs, but if they can catch the Razorbacks in transition again on one side of the ball, that would help.

As for Florida, who knows whether Kurt Roper will be the answer. I tend to think injuries were the main problem there, and Brent Pease had a pretty good reputation before coming to Florida.

I may be one of the few that thinks Lane Kiffin will succeed at Alabama, mainly because Nick Saban will muzzle him. But others believe Kiffin will still find a way to get in trouble. We shall see. Of course, Alabama isn’t on Georgia’s schedule.

Is Georgia still recruiting Ty Flournoy-Smith out of Georgia Military? When he went down there, it was mentioned he might return, and Georgia could use another TE for the depth chart it seems. What is going on with his recruitment and might he be a name on the big board at Butts-Mehre in two weeks?
- Ben from Athens

Thanks for asking, as this was something I actually neglected to report a few weeks ago, in the midst of everything else going on.

Flournoy-Smith will not be coming back to Georgia. He has committed to Ole Miss, and plans to sign there. There was some thought when Flournoy-Smith transferred – after the marijuana incident that led to Harvey-Clemons’ first suspension – that he could return to UGA. But Georgia eventually moved on, taking the commitment from Jeb Blazevich. Between Jay Rome, who will be a redshirt junior, Jordan Davis, a redshirt freshman, and Blazevich, the staff feels pretty good about its tight ends. They also like a few of the walk-ons, such as Jake Looman.

What will the offseason look like for the Georgia football players from now till spring practices?
- Ray, Lawton, Okla.

Just offseason workouts, and going to class. The workouts are led by the strength and conditioning staff. And players can also organize their own workouts, as long as the coaches aren’t involved. In the past Aaron Murray has taken the lead on doing that, especially over the summer. I’ve walked by the practice fields and seen footballs flying around, so guys are doing stuff. But typically the most work that occurs between January and spring practice is in the weight room.

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