ATHENS — Last year, when Georgia head coach Mark Richt opined that the 2009 season offered a virtually unlimited set of outcomes, he did so with an underlying hint that there were too many big questions for him to offer any sincere predictions.
There are major questions again as the Bulldogs prepare for 2010, but on the heels of the most turbulent and disappointing season of Richt’s career, he somehow seems more optimistic about the possibilities for what lies ahead.
“I don’t do jumping jacks like some people do when they’re excited, but I can promise you, I’m as excited about this season as I have been for any one since I’ve been at Georgia,” Richt said. “I think we’ve got the right stuff.”
Sure, there’s a new quarterback. But Richt loves Aaron Murray’s potential, assuming the freshman can keep from throwing too many passes to the other team.
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And yes, the defense will undergo a hefty amount of turnover, including three new coaches and a new scheme. But Richt sees so much potential there — with new defensive coordinator Todd Grantham calling the shots and a bevy of talented youngsters getting their first taste of significant action — that it’s not hard to envision an improvement over the disastrous defense of 2009.
With a softer schedule and a wide-open SEC East, there are plenty of reasons for optimism that don’t require the coach-speak and hair-splitting that last year’s rah-rah speeches might have, and that’s enough for even Richt to admit that this year has a chance to be special.
“People feel like it’s kind of up for grabs in the league,” Richt said. “It is hard to predict how good we’re going to be — mainly because of the quarterback situation and just implementing a new defense right now — but there are some things that we’re pretty solid in that, historically, if you have those things you have a chance.”
The first is the offensive line, where Georgia returns more experienced talent than any other team in the country.
The second is special teams, with the Bulldogs bringing back the country’s best punter in Drew Butler, place-kicker Blair Walsh, who was a finalist for the Lou Groza Award a year ago, and return man Brandon Boykin, who scored three times on kick returns last season.
There are some key players returning from injuries in Kris Durham and Trinton Sturdivant. There are some up-and-coming players who have made huge strides like Tavarres King and Cornelius Washington. Richt points to a deep group of tight ends, a talent-filled secondary and leadership among the linebackers as important pieces in the foundation of the 2010 season.
And, of course, there’s A.J. Green — perhaps the best receiver in the country.
All of that adds up to a lot of potential, Richt said.
“We’ve got some guys who have produced, and I think there’s a lot of things to point to that make you think you can have success.”
Richt has been around long enough to know the signs of a potentially special team. But he has also been around long enough to know that offseason prognostication is often far from accurate. Too much can happen during the course of a long season in the SEC.
“There’s a lot of teams that can win the league, but the teams that win usually stay healthy and gain some kind of momentum by some kind of close game they shouldn’t have won but won it,” Richt said.
So with one month still remaining before Georgia opens fall camp on July 30, Richt isn’t ready to get into any specific predictions, but unlike last season, optimism isn’t quite as hard a sell this summer.
With optimism comes expectations, however, and Richt knows more will be expected of his team this season.
“Every year is crucial. Every year is a season that’s meaningful to everybody, and this year is no different in that regard,” Richt said. “Our goal as coaches is to maximize the talent that you have through preparation and unifying the team and then we still need to enjoy it along the way, too.”
And that’s the one area where Richt will make a prediction for 2010.
“As we all know, winning is more fun than losing,” Richt said, “and I want these guys to have a lot of fun this year.”