ATHENS -- There were times last year that Tavarres King would look around the Georgia football team before games and sense something was wrong. The atmosphere was flat. Players weren’t on the same page.
“Last year was a real quiet year in the locker room,” he said. “Nobody was ever saying anything leadership-wise.”
King, a receiver, answered “absolutely” when asked if there were more chemistry issues than people knew about last season. And he also said “absolutely” when asked if the team was closer together this spring.
That was echoed by other Bulldogs, who declined, understandably, to name names, but said cohesion was sometimes a problem. They have spoken often this offseason of a changed culture around the program.
“Nobody likes losing, and once you start losing, people start pointing fingers. You can’t have that on a good team,” said center Ben Jones, who as a rising senior has assumed a larger leadership role. “If you want to win, you can’t have people pointing fingers and cancers on your team. So we’ve got a fresh start and just coming together as a team, so we don’t have that.”
It’s typical for griping to occur behind the scenes -- and occasionally in public -- on teams that lose. But this Georgia football program isn’t used to losing. So a 6-7 season, along with a slew of off-field issues, introduced new issues.
Quarterback Aaron Murray said there were “definitely grumbles” that were natural for a team not having a good season.
“You can’t have that. That’s the time when you need to come together and not really separate or anything,” Murray said. “At times last year when things were going bad, (the team came together). But at other times, especially in that four-game losing streak, people were complaining and this and that. And you can’t be doing that.”
Linebacker Christian Robinson first broached the issue earlier this month when he told ESPN.com, “We’ve eliminated some people maybe that were cancerous, whether it was people who graduated or might not be here anymore.”
Robinson elaborated a bit this past week, saying it was “a general attitude” that has since improved.
“We’re brothers. And I think that’s the main thing right now is we’re not a bunch of individuals,” Robinson said. “We’re a bunch of brothers that are out there trying to play the game, that are trying to play for the guy next to them.”
Robinson didn’t pinpoint specific players, nor did his teammates. He didn’t limit his comments to just the transfers, but when it came to playing time, that was an issue for all three players who have left.
Nick Williams, who was shuttled between safety and linebacker throughout his career, asked for his release before the season was over. Logan Gray, who was a backup receiver after being moved from quarterback, had his transfer decision announced in February.
Marcus Dowtin’s decision is more murky. The junior linebacker, who was the team’s fourth-leading tackler, didn’t play in the Liberty Bowl for unspecified reasons. Then it came to light that he was questioned by police, although never arrested, after an incident last summer in his native Maryland.
Dowtin’s decision to transfer was announced a short time later. But he reiterated this past week, while attending UGA’s pro day, that he was not shoved off.
“A lot of that stuff in the media is not true. None of that’s true,” Dowtin said. “I just left because I felt as a business decision it was the best way to go. I didn’t think they were gonna give me the best chance to be that guy for the team, to be that headline guy. I didn’t think they were going to allow me to do that. Plus I just felt I was gonna have a good opportunity at another school.”
In any case, the idea of team “cancers” can be a complex one. Some current and former players declined to go that far.
“I think any time that things go wrong, people find something or someone to blame,” tight end Aron White said. “I don’t blame any of my teammates. I love guys, my guys that have played here. Some guys have problems; some don’t. I haven’t done everything perfect. Some guys might say I was a problem here or a problem there. But at the same time, we all love our teammates, we never point the finger at one of our teammates. If people want to say that, they can say that. But we’re focusing on the new way at Georgia. We’re just focusing on doing things the right way now.”
Demarcus Dobbs, who was a senior last year, said it was only natural for people to start pointing fingers after an unexpectedly poor season.
“When you go 6-7 you start to look and a lot of people start to point at a lot of people instead of looking within themselves and what they can better,” Dobbs said. “How could they have bettered the team, you know. I look at myself, as to how I could have been a better leader, to lead some of the guys. Everybody comes from different backgrounds. You never know what people’s problems are in life. All you can do is ask yourself what did you contribute to help that person out and to help your team out, and how much did you do.”
The departed players may be a convenient target, in other words.
“There were a couple guys transferring. I don’t necessarily think they were cancers to the team,” Dobbs said. “Maybe they didn’t do everything the right way, but I don’t think they led to the demise of the team.”
Indeed, the fortunes of the 2011 Georgia football team will likely come down to other facts -- whether the defense improves, if the running game is better and if the revamped strength and conditioning program makes a difference.
But Jones said he already has noticed some positive changes to team chemistry. Players now head to the facility an hour before workouts begin, shooting pool or watching TV together. Last year players were showing up 10 minutes before practice and “dreading” it, according to Jones.
“You can just tell right now by the guys leading right now that it’s gonna be different,” Murray said. “We’re not taking any nonsense from anyone that wants to start trouble.”
Of course, it’s easy to feel good right now, the Bulldogs’ quarterback said.
“Everything is great right now. You’re not playing any games, you’re just going out there and practicing and working out,” Murray said. “I mean when things get hard, you’ll see what a team’s really made of.”