ATHENS — Sitting around the table at the dining hall with several teammates a few days ago, Georgia cornerback Brandon Boykin broached the topic of the new ambiance at practice since three coaches were let go at the end of the regular season.
It was a different environment to be sure, but there was something more. With two graduate assistants now running the show for the linebackers and secondary and some of the team’s veterans playing the role of motivators, it wasn’t just that things were different, Boykin said. The whole team just seemed younger.
“It’s fun, and we’re enjoying it, and I think we’ll make the best of it,” Boykin said.
It’s not that anyone is excited to start a new era of football without their former coaches, but after a season of turmoil and two weeks of chaos following the changes to the staff, it just feels good to be playing football again.
Three coaches are gone and the Bulldogs’ bowl destination isn’t exactly a beach paradise, but Boykin and his teammates are quick to proclaim that a healthy amount of energy still exudes from the players as they prepare for their final game of the season.
“With all the things that have happened and the adversity, I think we just want to go out and prove that we can still win and we’re still a good team, and we won’t let us effect us,” he said. “I feel like that would be an accomplishment for the players.”
It helps, too, that the initial shock following the dismissals of Willie Martinez, Jon Fabris and John Jancek has had some time to subside. The players had hoped they could save the jobs of their coaches, but when the ax finally fell, they had two weeks to mourn before getting back to the business of preparing for Texas A&M.
“I think it was very good that we had that long break where we could get our minds right and refocus and let that time pass where we were so down about the coaches being gone,” linebacker Rennie Curran said. “That time of mourning has already passed. It wasn’t easy to get back on the field, but it was a little bit better because we hadn’t been out there for a while, and it was exciting to just be out there playing.”
Still, it remains a surreal atmosphere. The usual voices of Martinez, Fabris and Jancek are noticeably absent, and the future remains in limbo as head coach Mark Richt mulls potential replacements. But the transition so far hasn’t been quite as difficult as expected.
For one, the game plan for the Aggies isn’t vastly different than it has been all year. There is no new playbook or suddenly revamped scheme. And even the coaches on the sidelines are graduate assistants the Bulldogs already know well.
Change is coming, for certain, but thus far, it simply has been a new riff on an old routine.
“After they got fired, we still had familiar faces around,” linebacker Darryl Gamble said. “It’s not like getting a whole new coaching staff for a bowl game and trying to adjust for one game. We’re still going on with the same people we have.”
Of course, the best motivator for Georgia might be the opponent.
Texas A&M led the Big 12 in total offense and ranked fifth nationally, chalking up more than 465 yards per game. Add that to the ongoing questions about Georgia’s now under-manned defense and the Bulldogs see the Independence Bowl as a gift-wrapped opportunity to prove the doubters wrong.
“I think the defense has had pretty good energy,” defensive end Darius Dobbs said. “We’ve come out and had good tempo. We know Texas A&M is at the top of their league in offense, so this is a great opportunity to prove ourselves and prove a lot of people wrong that think this is going to be a shootout. It’s going to be a great challenge, and that’s what football is all about.”
The coaches may be gone and the season may have already been officially stamped a disappointment, but there is work left to do, and that’s not lost on the Bulldogs.
The future remains unwritten, but the first chapter of what’s to come can be penned by Georgia’s defenders in their final opportunity in 2009 to prove themselves — and that’s an opportunity they don’t want to waste.
“Even though (the coaches) are gone, we still have a lot of things to uphold — just everything we’ve worked for this whole season,” Curran said. “A lot of things can still be accomplished even though our coaches aren’t here. I feel like the best motivation is when you’re self-reliant, and that’s going to be the biggest thing for us. I don’t think we’ll have any problem with that.”