Georgia has worrisome transfer trend

semerson@macon.comMay 10, 2014 

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Shaq Wiggins (6) is leaving the Georgia football program after starting eight games last season.

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ATHENS -- Shaq Wiggins liked to sing. During practice last year it wasn’t unusual to walk by Georgia’s defensive backs, often lazing about during a drill, and hear the dulcet tones of Wiggins, the freshman cornerback, belting out a tune.

Wiggins was also good at football, and when he was inserted into the lineup he provided a spark to a beleaguered secondary. So when the news came late Friday night that he was transferring, it was a jolt, and it was hard to see it as good news.

There were obviously some issues behind the scenes. Wiggins said he would look for a program that “embraced my personality,” in a statement he released to 247Sports. Maybe Jeremy Pruitt, the new defensive coordinator and secondary coach, didn’t embrace the signing. Maybe Pruitt just wasn’t as high on Wiggins as the previous staff.

Either way, there is a larger trend: High-profile transfers and a dismissal have now replaced off-field incidents as an issue on head coach Mark Richt’s team.

Yes, arrests and suspensions have continued, but arrests have been relatively minor -- the lone felony charge the past four years was later dismissed -- while the suspensions are largely self-inflicted. Georgia’s drug policy, and its harsher discipline for failed marijuana tests, are chiefly to blame.

The amount of quality players leaving the program, however, is not easy to dismiss.

Wiggins joins Josh Harvey-Clemons out the door this offseason, as well as promising inside linebacker Paris Bostick, who redshirted as a freshman. The recent history of Georgia players who leave via transfer or dismissal -- often the terms are interchangeable -- makes it easy to predict you haven’t heard the last of that trio.

Nick Marshall, you know about. Chris Sanders and Sanford Seay, the two players dismissed with Marshall in 2012, will also play at other Division I programs this season. Tight end Ty Flournoy-Smith has signed with Alabama. Offensive lineman Brent Benedict starts for Virginia Tech.

Going back further, three ex-Bulldogs players were drafted Saturday or signed free agent contracts: Quarterback Zach Mettenberger, tailback Isaiah Crowell and cornerback Jordan Love.

Georgia’s offense has weathered those losses. The defense, not so much, making the offseason departures cause for more concern.

The good news for Georgia is that recruiting keeps chugging along. And, given Pruitt’s reputation, it’s very possible that he can make up in the long term for any talent that departs under his watch during the transition.

But at some point, you also need players now.

Look at last season. Imagine a secondary with Marshall, Sanders and Love. The O-line probably could’ve used Benedict. Luckily for the rest of the offense, it still had Aaron Murray, Todd Gurley and very good coaches.

Several years ago, Richt had a change when it came to dealing with discipline. Gone was the Bobby Bowden philosophy of rehabilitating players under your watch. The rash of arrests between 2007-10 forced the change.

“I’ve probably had a little less patience than I’ve had in the past,” Richt said in July of 2011.

Let’s be clear: Many of these dismissals and transfers had to happen. Wiggins’ situation is a bit cloudier, but with many of the recent situations, Richt and Georgia are to be commended for taking a harsher stance than many of their competitors.

The result has been more transfers and less serious off-field problems, as well as better locker room chemistry. Yes, Georgia is still the butt of jokes from Steve Spurrier and some media types, but those closer to the program know this is a tighter ship now.

The collateral damage, however, can’t be ignored. Marshall’s transfer might have directly swung the fates last year for Georgia and Auburn. And now a defense that at least could point to returning experience has lost its third-leading tackler and leader in interceptions. Wiggins also produced the team’s only defensive or special teams touchdown.

Georgia fans can only hope that recent history repeats itself. Four years ago, after the 6-7 season, there was a massive group of departures, as the locker room culture received a thorough cleansing.

“A couple guys left because they wanted to leave the program,” Richt said at the time. “A couple left because we helped them out the door.”

The result was the core of a team that won two straight division titles. But, along the way, some players left who could have helped prevent last year’s downturn.

Change just for the sake of change isn’t necessarily good. It has to be the right change. It was a few years ago. This time around, the verdict is out.

Contact Seth Emerson at semerson@macon.com.

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