ATHENS -- Several times Tuesday, Mark Richt had to stop from getting ahead of himself. The head coach took pains to issue reminders that his Georgia football team still has one win to get before it can claim a division title.
The change in the tone of the weekly news conference was noticeable: The hot seat talk of earlier in the season has given way to reflective questions of how Georgia went from 0-2 to 8-2.
But there were no drastic changes after those first two losses. No, the change in fortunes for Georgia can be traced back to the offseason, when Richt and his staff, knowing this was a make-or-break season for them, made a series of changes. It just took awhile and an easier schedule, for them to pay off.
Strength and conditioning
Richt made a difficult decision in replacing Dave Van Halanger, his longtime strength and conditioning coordinator. Joe Tereshinski, who had worked at Georgia for decades, overhauled the offseason program to put an emphasis on how the team did in the fourth quarter.
The results so far speak well. The Bulldogs are outscoring opponents 60-57 in the fourth quarter this season, and 14 of those points for the opponents were by New Mexico State against the walk-ons and third-stringers. Last year’s team was outscored 92-68 in the final quarter and lost to Florida in overtime.
This year Georgia rallied and beat Florida in the final quarter.
“That was definitely a big point of emphasis,” Richt said. “More than saying winning the fourth quarter, are you physically and mentally tough enough and do you have enough stamina to play hard for the full 60 minutes? I think we have.”
There were no big player meetings after the 0-2 start. They didn’t see the need. And players trace that back to some of the weeding out that happened in the offseason and the team’s “get on the bus” motto.
It sounded corny, but the Bulldogs say it worked and held the team together.
“It’s definitely a very close-knit team,” quarterback Aaron Murray said. “I’m not saying we weren’t last year, but guys were talking in the locker room, (so) we didn’t think there was a need for a big meeting. Guys were on the same page in understanding that Hey we know we have a special team, we know we have the talent to compete with anybody in the SEC, we’ve just gotta go out there, cut down the turnovers, execute as well as we can, and we’ve done that.”
“This is probably the closest team I’ve been on,” said guard Chris Burnette, a sophomore. “The fact that we lost those first two games and we were able to look around at each other and know that we still trusted the guy next to us, I think that was a huge part of us being able to bounce back from the first two games.”
It was also partly why Richt didn’t feel the need to lay into his team after the South Carolina loss. He told the players he was encouraged by the team’s improvement from the season opener.
“I really believed that we had a special group of guys and a special chemistry that was built through the offseason, especially in camp,” Richt said.
The change from Van Halanger to Tereshinski was an internal one. But in February Richt also had to reach outside the program to hire two new assistants.
When offensive line coach Stacy Searals left for the same job at Texas, the search ended with the hiring of Will Friend, a former Georgia grad assistant who had been at UAB. Despite Friend’s youth and inexperience, he has managed to cobble together a line that has improved much since a rough start.
“I really like what Will has done,” Richt said. “Some line coaches only see their picture. They don’t really see the big picture. Will sees the big picture.”
New linebackers coach Kirk Olividatti, who left the Washington Redskins to come to Georgia, has had to make changes on the fly. He lost Alec Ogletree in the opener, and Christian Robinson a week later. Both have since returned, but Olividatti managed with a freshman (Amarlo Herrera) and Mike Gilliard, who went from a career reserve to now being a regular.
Olividatti, like Richt, was making sure that no one crowned the Bulldogs just yet.
“We’re not gonna sit there and admire the picture and figure out all that kind of stuff,” he said. “We’re basically full-force towards Kentucky, and maybe we’ll admire the picture some other time. But we ain’t doing that quite yet. We’ve just gotta keep doing the things that made us successful.”